Daniel Dennett is one of the leading philosophers of our generation. Here he offers seven tools for thinking.
One that I thought especially good advice for young scholars was first offered by Anatol Rappaport: how to compose a successful critical commentary:
1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport’s rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…
Leonard Cassuto offers reasonably good advice on preparing for, and preparing, a dissertation proposal. Standards and expectations vary from field to field and department to department (even within a field) so take the advice with some caution, but as he says, “consult your advisor”!
In a commentary on Cassuto’s article, Daren Brabham adds this very important point:
I want to emphasize that the prospectus document is meant to get you to the meeting so you can talk about your project in front of a panel of experts. The meeting is meant to help clarify issues that may have occluded your view and to engage in a conversation with your committee about the work you plan on doing. Defense, may in fact be the wrong posture for these meetings. I found that my committee members asked tough and important questions, listened carefully to my responses, and pushed me–all of this was not to make me defensive about my project but to aid in widening my field of vision so that I could see important issues I was missing. What emerged is a set of lingering questions that I must attend to in my dissertation, but the tone of the meeting was never defensive. Instead, I found my meeting to be a rigorous and challenging conversation with experts in the field. This conversation model is important because as we progress beyond comps and through the dissertation process we emerge as colleagues instead of students. These meetings, as conversations, help facilitate that movement.
Many fields — and more as time goes by — use posters to communicate research results at conferences and workshops. Just as with writing a paper, or giving a talk, preparing a poster that effectively communicates your ideas and results requires a set of skills. And as with every different mode of communication, the skills are not identical as for other modes.
Here is an article from The Scientist with advice. It also provides links to other resources. It has been reprinted in the Tomorrow’s Professor blog, and can be found there as well.
A charming essay by Adam Ruben on how to write like a scientist, whether you want to or not (beware: tongue planted firmly in cheek).
How to Write Like a Scientist, 23 March 2012, Science.
My colleague Paul Edwards has been giving talks about how to give talks for over a decade now. There’s a good reason he’s asked so often to do it: he has very sound advice, and he’s given it a lot of thought. He also has created a detailed advice handout, now in version 4. Of course, I don’t agree with everything he recommends, but I do think he’s right on the money on almost everything. And if train yourself to use his advice, and practice, you’ll get good enough that you can make your own judgments about what works best for you and your personality.
But, for god’s sake, work on your presentation skills and practice. Effective communication to an audience is not an in-born skill for most people.
Edwards on How to Give an Academic Talk
My colleague Eytan Adar recommends the following three resources to guide students on preparing scientific posters to communicate their research:
Advice on designing scientific posters, Colin Purrin, Swarthmore College (Eytan notes this is somewhat long, and he doesn’t agree with all of the advice).
Poster and Presentation Resources,UNC Graduate School (this is actually a collection of several resources from various others)
Tips for Posters in the Humanities, Stanford.
This is an interesting blog post by Christian Sandvig (Illinois iSchool) (via Marianne Ryan) about social science research methods. The title is hooey, but two deeper points are good ones I think — not new, but often overlooked, and he provides some references to more complete discussions (suitable for, perhaps, use in 840, ahem).
His two main points as I see them: methods courses often focus too much on procedure, when they should focus first and foremost on research design and the nature of evidence. And, statistical significance is not substantive significance.
My student, Maciej Kos, found this syllabus for a course on academic work. It contains a pretty good listing of fiction and non-fiction books about academic life. (I would add to the list of novels Old Scores by Nicholas Delbanco, and several of the novels of Rebecca Goldstein, such as The Mind-Body Problem.) I have been giving a copy of James Lang’s memoir Life on the Tenure Track to new junior faculty.
Blanchette, “Academic Work”, Information Studies 298-C, Winter 2010, UCLA
My colleague John King sent me the diagram below. It is an easy-to-remember schematic for how to organize a talk. Start with some context (we often say “the motivation”), drilling down until you get to your specific problem, then describe in detail your contribution in solving this problem. Finish by heading back up to the surface: return to the context, reminding your audience of the connection between your problem and the broader context, this time adding the implications of what you have discovered for the broader context. This would naturally lead into a description of your ongoing research programme on this topic, if you have one. (I advocate *against* a “future work” slide unless you are actually committed too, and probably already engaged in, the future work.)
I like this, but, at least for a seminar talk (50-80 minutes rather than the 12-18 typical at many conferences), I would precede the big donut with a smaller semi-donut, which is the left half of the big donut in miniature. That is, spend the first minute (and maybe one slide) quickly setting the scene (the context), then briefly but clearly introduce the problem you tackle, state your results (without demonstrating or supporting them, then sum up your contribution. After that brief intro, get with the more detailed context – contribution – context program.
This is very similar to the classic storytelling exposition I’ve elsewhere advocated. As in a typical (not post-modern) novel or movie, immediately set the scene, identify the protagonist and the conflict he or she faces. In stories the resolution (results) often aren’t broadcast up front (though they may be foreshadowed), to build suspense. Sometimes that kind of suspense-building works in a scholarly talk, but often giving a sneak peak at the results is helpful / necessary in motivating the audience to be interested in what comes.
The American Economic Association publishes, in Job Openings for Economists, a long (82 page!) guide and advice manual for young scholars seeking academic jobs. Though some of it is specific to the field of economics, much of it is generic. Lots of good advice in here.
(This is updated and republished annually, I believe, in the October issue of JOE, which is available online.)