Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I’d like to disabuse early-career grad students of certainmisconceptions…


  1. You are rarely the best judge of the most important material or best presentation strategy for your talk. Corollary: Give one or more practice talks.

  2. Writing is much harder than you think. Corollary 1: You are not that great a writer. Corollary 2: If you don’t have a solid draft 1-2 weeks before the conference deadline, you’re starting with 2 strikes.

  3. 80% or more of submitted papers are rejected. Corollary: You need feedback from colleagues and outsiders to improve your paper. A poor way to get feedback is to submit the paper, wait 6 months, and get a rejection with cryptic reviews. A better way is left as an exercise to the reader. (Thanks to Mike Franklin for this particular way of looking at the “get feedback” issue.)

  4. When you write up your work, remember that nobody cares what you did but only why it advances the state of the art. Edit accordingly. Corollary: edit an outline and paragraph map before you start writing. It’s much easier to rearrange/eliminate at this level than at the prose level.

  5. The reviewer has 20 other papers waiting to be reviewed and is looking for a reason to set yours aside and move on. Corollary: your job is to ensure no such opening is provided—whether by unsupported statements, poor writing, rambling style, etc.

  6. Your goal is not that your work gets the approval of your advisor, but the approval of the research community, as represented by the (usually anonymous) reviewers who will be evaluating your paper. Your advisor can bring her/his experience to bear and give you advice (hence “advisor”) on how to maximize the likelihood of this, but don’t mislead yourself into thinking that your goal should be to please your advisor.  If the community is pleased with your work, chances are excellent your advisor will be too.  Corollary: Get lots of feedback on a paper from people other than your advisor—i.e., people representative of the reviewers who’ll evaluate it—before submitting it.
  7. Every written statement in a research paper is either a statement supported by your results, a statement supported by your or others’ prior work, or an opinion. If it’s not obviously one of the first two, reviewers will assume it’s the third. Corollary: if it’s an opinion, you’d better either back it up or explicitly present it as such. If it’s not an opinion, make clear why not.

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