A little bit about the beginning of the end: Scientific writing during my PhD training

Hi everyone,

I figured that I have been putting this blog post off for way too long, mostly out of mental exhaustion, but now may be a good time to cover it before I defend my PhD thesis next month.

So, what is there that I can say about scientific writing during this PhD? I can definitely say one thing- it can be tough. Delivering scientific ideas is challenging, even if they were conceived by you.

Let me preface this blog by saying that I have been writing for years.

Writing this blog, writing pieces that reviewed other literature, writing poetry, but when it comes to scientific writing, at least for the past few months, I have definitely struggled. I think part of this comes from trying to put ideas to paper and, also, from the fact that a lot of my writing is edited by my boss, who has her own style of writing. Although her style is much more refined, she’s been doing this for over 20 years after all, it can sometimes be daunting to get back something you wrote practically completely rewritten.

So, I figured I would dedicate this post to providing pearls of wisdom as to how my writing process works. This applies to scientific writing in general, although it contains pearls of wisdom learned mostly as I’ve been writing my paper and putting together my thesis.

  1. Write throughout your PhD training 
    • I have been fortunate enough to be pushed to write and read throughout this PhD. From my initial thesis proposal, which was based on my project, to writing grants and small bits for conferences, I have always been pushed to write. This hasn’t always been a pleasant task, but it really helps especially when you need to put your paper and/or thesis together. Since I have been writing my paper and thesis for the past few months, I must say that having written some things here and there along the way, help me to have references which I wanted to include in this paper/thesis ready and also to have a general idea of what needed to be in both of these documents.
    • Remember- PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT (or almost perfect)….so practice, practice, practice.
  2. Read throughout your PhD training and keep all your papers in software that manages bibliographies, like EndNote
    • I wish I had done more of this throughout my PhD training to be honest. The way that I functioned during grad school was to have spurts where I read a lot and spurts where there was barely any reading. This is not a good approach. First, biomedical research moves at a fast pace and it is better to keep up with it. Second, even though you will catch up on all the reading, it is never good to have a marathon of non-stop reading during spurts of time. This definitely worked for me, but I wish I had been more diligent with reading all the time. I also think it is important to just read as you go along because looking back at it now, it would have helped me to come up with so many more cool experiments in real-time.
    • When you read, make sure that you are keeping all of your papers in a bibliography managing software like EndNote. Even though I kept all my papers in folders on my computer and sporadically in online software programs like Mendeley, I wish I would have kept it all in EndNote from the get-go. It would have made it easier for me to just have everything in one place and not have to go back and forth looking for papers.
    • Lesson learned- BE ORGANIZED.
  3. Keep your data organized.
    • Just like it is important to keep your papers organized, I also think that keeping your data organized and ready to go is extremely important. If you can, get software like Prism which helps you prepare your data as you go along. Think about figures for your paper or thesis as you assemble these graphs/figures. This will definitely help you figure out where your story is going and what other parts you need to fill in.
    • I can’t say I did this at the beginning of my training and I regretted it when I finally did. I think that because there wasn’t much at the beginning, I never thought I needed to start thinking about figures or the bigger picture. BUT I’ve learned that it is all about the big picture. It is all about the story you will try to convert and “sell.” Even having the most preliminary data in figure form at the beginning will help you come up with new ideas and see the bigger picture of your project.
  4. Outline
    • When you are ready to start writing- whether it be a thesis, a grant proposal, a review, a paper or just an abstract- what works best for me is to create an outline. I like to create an outline for all of the parts of my paper, for example, which includes all of the papers I will be citing. I know this can be time consuming and tedious, but it helped me so much. For example, during my training, I have written a review of the literature in my field. Writing this was a little overwhelming, but it really helped that I had an outline for this especially because I had to cover so much material. I also had to write my paper and having an outline, for each section (intro, results, discussion, methods etc), helped to keep my ideas organized and not to miss any points I needed to make. Of course, this outline was not set in stone, but it gave me a pathway to follow and made me feel less stressed out when I was writing the paper.
  5. Take time to write
    • I know this is not ideal for everyone because we often have to work on experiments while writing, but if you have the chance to, take some time off lab work to write.
    • Personally, I cannot do a million things at the same time and that became evident pretty quickly. At some point after I started writing, I decided to stop working on experiments for a bit. This hurt my heart because I am constantly going and still feel the need to get experiments done, but I think it was best for me. I took afternoons off and even a few days off here and there just to focus on writing and reading. I found it to be a way more productive experience than having my attention spread into three different tasks at once.
  6. Have a buddy system
    • Writing on your own can be both rewarding because it means you will get more done, but it can also be a very lonely process.  I write best when I am in the library. Period. Nothing else works for me. BUT when I am tired, it is hard for me to drag myself to the library….and that has happened a lot in the past few months. So, it is best to develop a buddy system. By this I mean, schedule a library date for the library. Getting there and staying there will be much much easier.
    • Most of the writing you do will be your own original writing, so no one can help you write the first drafts of your original ideas. However, having a friend read it over for clarity helps. I did not employ this at first, but then realized that I had a group of incredibly smart graduate students around me who were willing to read my first drafts and give suggestions. I wish I had used this network of friends to really hone in into what needed to be conveyed more clearly prior to sending first drafts to my boss for revision.
  7. Take breaks and breathe
    • For me the past few months have been like running a marathon. Everything just got kicked up a notch because all of my data was ready, my boss wanted the paper to be ready for submission, and I finally scheduled my thesis defense date, which meant I also had to write a thesis. So, there was little time for breaks, and I took this very seriously. The lack of breaks created something really unhealthy for me and that compounded with the stress of trying to push things out and be efficient, didn’t make it better.
    • I wish that I had taken more real breaks while writing my paper, for example. It would have saved me time and energy. There were moments when I felt like I was writing for the sake of writing and not because I was passionate about this project which has been five years in the making. In fact, sometimes I was taking it too seriously and, even though, this is pretty serious, being effective with writing requires you to unplug once in a while. When rested and not so stressed out, it turned out that I wrote my best bits.

Finally and most importantly, ENJOY THE PROCESS. 

The end of graduate school is really a once in a lifetime experience. You will feel accomplished, yet there will still be moments when you feel like an impostor (which I wrote about before). While writing and putting figures together this feeling does come up, even though you know that you’ve worked so hard and everything you are presenting makes biological sense and has been validated. These feelings will pop up BUT you will also feel relief that it is almost over and that so many years of working long nights, weekends, through holidays are about to pay off. Soon you will have a paper written and ready for submission and a thesis that is about to be submitted! Enjoy that despite all of the stress, the late night emails from your boss asking you to edit your paper/thesis or to do more experiments, and your own doubts about whether this paper is ever going to make it into a reputable journal or if your committee will like what you are finally presenting to them.

I guess what I am trying to say is that you should take a moment to be proud and to enjoy the ride. This is the last step in becoming a PhD and, although, there is still a lot of growth that needs to happen personally and scientifically, the road has been tough and it is time to soak some of the grace that brought you here up.

If you have any questions, please leave comments below!

As I prepare for my thesis defense, I hope to write more about what worked for me during this process once I have defended.

xoxox,

M

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