Decide on the point you’re making and write to it

My supervisor gave me a great piece of advice to help my writing. She told me to decide on the point I was trying to make in my paper, then make sure everything I write actively contributes to driving this point home.

I tend to get side-tracked and waffle in my writing. I think the reader needs to know about a, b and c before they can REALLY understand z. So I explain a lot of things and provide a substantial amount of background. I try to cover an entire field in my introduction/background. One of the consequences of this is that I’ve always had a problem with flow. My introductions don’t flow as elegantly as they could.

My supervisor’s advice helped tremendously with this. I was astounded at the difference it made to my writing. Plus it made the act of writing easier as well!

Decide on the point you’re making.

You only have space to make ONE point in a journal article. Don’t let a 6000 odd word limit fool you. One point. So make it a good one! You need to be very clear in your mind what the one point will be so it pays to spend some time on refining it. Once you’ve decided on the key point, write it down. Sit it right beside your computer so you can constantly refer back to it. Or as Tara Gray suggests in “Publish & Flourish” (a great little book!), stick it up on the wall in front of you.

Write to your key point.

Prepare an outline of the arguments you’re going to make to back up your key point. Make sure every argument directly contributes to the point you’re making. Then start writing! Constantly refer back to your key point and outline to make sure that every single sentence you write stays on track. Make sure examples you cite are carefully selected to specifically target the point you’re making. Don’t go off on tangents. Don’t stray from your key point. Writing to your key point provides focus. Remember, you are making one point in your paper – make sure every sentence you write directly contributes to your key point, whether through emphasising the point, explaining the point, arguing the point, defending the point or highlighting where the point can lead us.

For example:

When I prepared the literature review in my proposal, my key point was that we need to investigate whether limited access to resources is having a negative influence on populations within fragmented landscapes. I then decided the main arguments I was going to make were:

  • Habitat loss and fragmentation contribute to population declines.
  • Correlating landscape characteristics to population declines tells us nothing about the actual mechanisms/processes driving those declines.
  • Reduced access to resources in fragmented landscapes may be one of the mechanistic processes contributing to population declines.
  • Between-patch movements may be restricted in fragmented landscapes and, thus, limit resource access.
  • Stress measures may provide an early indicator of population health before declines are evident.
  • Australian woodland birds are declining and we don’t know why. Restricted access to resources is a likely candidate cause.

When my supervisor explained the need for one key point, I looked over several published review articles. I had previously thought these articles covered many ideas. However, I can now see that each paper indeed tries to sell one key point to the reader. Have a look over a few review articles in your field – can you identify the author’s key point?

What point are you trying to convey to your readers?

A reference management strategy that works

Sick of thinking “I know I read something about x somewhere” and having no idea where to start looking for that elusive x? The frustration! Here’s how I’ve overcome this problem.

For me, no single reference management software package suited my needs. So I use a combination of Endnote and Mendeley Desktop. Why? Because:

  1. References generally move from Web of Knowledge (WOK) to Endnote pretty accurately and easily. And Endnote works brilliantly with Word. It’s so easy to change the referencing style you want to use; not just to another journal style, but you can customise a particular style to your needs (eg if the journal stipulates you need a full stop after each initial but Endnote hasn’t done that, it’s pretty easy to customise the style so it does). References DO NOT migrate from WOK to Mendeley well at all. When I initially trialled Mendeley I found it incredibly frustrating because every reference needed a complete overhaul. I have no idea how well Mendeley works with Word – I never got that far!
  2. But…. Mendeley has an absolutely awesome feature that Endnote is lacking. When you do a search in Mendeley, it not only searches the text that makes up your reference (eg the title, author, abstract, notes). It also searches WITHIN every pdf. That’s right – Mendeley searches the full texts of your entire pdf library. So next time you think “I’m sure I read something about perimeter:edge ratios/”we must not let a forest full of trees fool us”*/glucocorticoids“, just stick the word or phrase into Mendeley and it will save you HOURS of searching time. Trust me. This tool is a god-send.
  3. Mendeley has some other cool features that Endnote does not. Like marking favourite articles and marking articles as read or unread (great for motivation as you see more “read” articles accumulating). Mendeley also lets you view the pdf and your notes at the same time, making it very easy to take notes while reading. Both Endnote and Mendeley let you use tags/keywords/groups, but to be honest, I haven’t needed these since being able to search within the pdf files.
  4. I can take my Endnote/Mendeley Desktop combo out to the field where there’s no internet access. This was a key criteria for me.

An outline of the process I follow:

First, I mostly use WOK to find articles. This platform has a really simple process to export references to Endnote. When I export a reference from WOK, I also save the article’s pdf file into a designated folder on my hard drive.

Once every few weeks, I tidy up my Endnote references and export them to Mendeley. To do this, I simply:

  1. Work from the group on the left of the Endnote screen called “Unfiled”.
  2. Open the first Endnote reference and also open the corresponding pdf file. Check the required Endnote fields have been populated correctly. Usually I find they are okay. The things I need to really watch out for is a) some article titles get imported as ALL CAPS, and b) unusual letters with accents and umlauts don’t import (eg András Börger would incorrectly be entered as Andras Borger).  You can look at the authors displayed on the pdf file to see if their names contain unusual letters. To help with correcting the letters, I also maintain a basic Word file with most of the unusual letters I encounter. This makes it easy to copy and paste the odd letter from Word to Endnote.
  3. The pdf file is then attached to the Endnote reference. I can then delete the pdf file from its location on my hard drive.
  4. Steps 1-3 are repeated for all the references in the Unfiled group.
  5. I then click File/Export to export all these updated references as an XML file.
  6. Open Mendeley and click File/Import/Endnote XML to import the references into the Mendeley database.
  7. All the imported files initially sit at the bottom of the list of references in Mendeley. It’s really easy to quickly run down each one and type either “Paper copy on file” or “Have not yet printed a copy” in the notes section for each reference. I tend to print out pdf’s for articles I definitely want to read (I find it a little easier on my eyes to read from a paper copy). Articles that look kind of relevant or that I might want to read down the track are just kept as electronic pdf’s. Having this note in Mendeley stops me from inadvertently printing out the same article multiple times.
  8. Finally, in Endnote, I move all the “Unfiled” references I just imported to a group I’ve called “Imported to Mendeley”. This keeps them separate from future unfiled references and I don’t end up importing references twice (although this isn’t much of an issue since Mendeley picks up on duplicated references).

I keep all the notes I take from reading the articles on Mendeley (if I haven’t yet done the Mendeley import at the time of reading the article, I can put the note in Endnote and it will transfer over at the time of the import).

The process may sound involved, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty straight forward and not very time demanding. You get to exploit the strengths of both programs and avoid the weaknesses. Endnote costs a little (although I got a free copy from my university), while Mendeley Desktop is free. So next time you’re sitting there swearing at your computer, have a think about making the switch. Did I say Mendeley searches the entire texts of your pdf files? Give it a go!

* The full quote is “We must not let a forest full of trees fool us into believing all is well” from Redford (1992). It was later cleverly used by Stevens & Watson (2013).

Redford, K. H. (1992). The empty forest. Bioscience 42, 412–422.
Stevens, H.C., Watson, D.M. (2013). Reduced rainfall explains avian declines in an unfragmented landscape: incremental steps toward an empty forest? Emu 113, 112-121.

Bridging the planning gap

Planning is one thing I am great at. I manage my PhD in Microsoft Project. I keep a yearly planner showing when I need to complete critical tasks. I know my big rocks for the month. I plan my work-day around a daily to-do list. I make sure nothing falls off my radar by maintaining a one-of-these-days to-do list. Less organised souls gaze wistfully at my wall planner. And yet, every now and then as I’m plodding along, my foot will unexpectedly hit a hole that’s so much more than a hole. A gaping cavern that feels like it will swallow me whole if I don’t quickly scramble my way out of it.

You see, in an attempt to not obsessively over-plan (ok, I realise it’s probably too late for that), I’m missing a middle step. The bridge between what the plan demands and how long the task will actually take. For example, if I know I need to have a document submitted by the end of the month, then I can work out that I’ll need to get a draft to my supervisor by the end of next week. And that will mean I’ll need to have drafted my introduction by xx\xx, the methods by yy/yy, results by zz\zz, etc… But how long will it actually take to draft an introduction? Is xx/xx an achievable timeframe?

In my case, it often appears that the answer is no, that’s a pretty unrealistic deadline.

But I manage. I push back the self-imposed deadline for my draft. I push hard when the solid deadline starts pressing in. I manage. Until I don’t.

As I get further into my PhD, my workload just gets heavier and heavier. I thought my first year was jam-packed – you should see my second year (what on earth will the third year bring!?!). I asked my supervisor how she gets things done when juggling so many top-priority, critically important tasks. Her response? “If you work that one out, tell me.”

So what’s the solution?

1. Know when to ease back on the perfectionism

Yes, I’m a perfectionist. I have the university medal to show for it. So tasks can take a long time. Writing the ideal paragraph. Balancing my research budget to the cent. Maintaining a comprehensive reference system. I need to be aware (earlier) of when time constraints demand that I ease back on getting things exactly right. “Good enough” really is good enough a lot of the time. I love the saying “a good PhD is a finished PhD”. More of a mantra really. Which leads us into the next point…

2. Ask: is this going to get the PhD DONE?

Be ruthless! When you’re really strapped, focus your energies into doing those things that will get your PhD done. Is that grant application going to be critical to the success of your PhD? Sure that article looks interesting, but is it likely to be central to the argument in your dissertation? Will your field work be able to proceed if you don’t take the time to go out, hunt around and buy that thingamajig?

3. Well…

I was going to add in a point 3 and even a point 4. But, well, you know how it is. I’m spending too much time on this post. Can I live with it being good enough as it is? And is spending more time on this really going to move me closer to finishing my PhD? So, I think I’ll leave it here for now. My PhD awaits.

Why should a budding researcher blog?

Why bother? Especially if you’re always two steps behind a mountain of work. Why on earth would you want to add to your workload?

There are some great posts about the benefits budding researchers can gain from blogging, like here, here, here and here.

But for me, it all came down to one thing: I need to learn to find my voice. And I don’t mean that nasty little voice saying “Who are you to tell people how to think?”

For months I’ve been meaning to start drafting an article that presents a conceptual framework for thinking about how habitat fragmentation contributes to population declines through restricting movements, but to date I have not written one word. I’ve had some great reasons for not writing. I’ve been flat out in the field. I’ve been preparing for my first year milestone – the confirmation proposal and presentation. But what it really comes down to is that I’m just plain scared of putting my voice out there and being judged on what I say. Why should experienced scientists listen to me? I should be listening to them.

Except there’s a big problem with my thinking. Successful researchers can’t hide away. Science is founded on ideas, debate, refinement. I can’t wait until I attain some magical status as an experienced, knowledgeable, official researcher accepted by the scientific community before presenting my ideas. I need to learn to present them now. As a 2nd year PhD student. A PhD is a training ground. An apprenticeship. A time to learn to be open to vulnerability and master the things you’re most afraid of as a scientist-to-be.

Terrifying. Necessary.

So today I’m starting a blog to give myself a voice. Face vulnerability head on. And tomorrow? Well, watch out conceptual-framework-paper. Prepare to be tackled.