Three good reasons to write like a monk

Annemiek van Os  by Annemiek van Os / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

It’s 5 A.M. and I am wide awake.

Usually I’m awoken roughly by the clanking sounds of a construction site near my house. Today, it’s the cheerful (yet deafening) sound of birds that announce the new day.

Usually I would have read my e-mail and checked my news apps by now, as I would be doing again and again and again later during the day. Today, I look forward to another ‘offline’ day, with my writing flow only interrupted by the soothing rhythm of coffee and food breaks.

This week, I’m doing everything differently. I’m writing Benedict-style.

Benedict (480 – 547 AD) was a saint who established a number of monasteries in his days and who gained (and still maintains to have) many followers who live according to his vision on spiritual and secular life, which he has written down in his ‘Rule for monks’. The structural elements of this rule have inspired the daily structure in the guest house where I am staying this week to write the general introduction of my dissertation. My schedule for each day is as follows:

Bildschirmfoto 2014-06-26 um 23.27.48

The daily structure advocated by Benedict is simple and strict, and this makes it utterly effective. Apparently, this daily routine is in agreement with the natural human biorhythm. The strict structure may make you feel a bit eerie in the beginning. Sometimes you can have the idea that only you can decide what the best moment is to start writing that paragraph you have been procrastinating around for days, and not the clock. The same thing goes for quitting your writing: what if you’re in a flow at that particular time? Why should you stop just because Benedict decided ages ago that it is time for coffee? Here’s three reasons why it’s a good idea to follow the structure anyway:

1. Learning the art of beginning

The structure encourages you to just start working. With a minimum of distractions (writing is the only thing on your agenda) and a doable time slot (you never write for more than two hours at a time), there is no excuse to not just pick up your pen – ha ha, I mean, log on to your computer of course – and start writing. Just do it. In essence, Benedict has eliminated the beast called procrastination that all PhDs fear:

via phdcomics.com © Jorge Cham

 2. Learning the art of stopping

Benedict was as serious about exercise as about relaxation and gets extra awesomeness points for making recreation a mandatory aspect of his daily rhythm. Taking a rest, both physically and mentally, is obviously important, otherwise you’ll eventually lose focus and you will be less productive. In Benedict’s time, the restorative breaks from work were meant as opportunities for prayer. However, you can also just take a walk, read a blog, or drink a good cup of coffee with colleagues and friends. Anything that takes your brain off work, relaxes your mind and puts the difficulties related to your research project in the right perspective will do.

3. Learning the right attitude between beginning and stopping

Between the start and stop sign is the zone where your actual work takes place. Benedict advocated doing everything with so-called relaxed dignity. To put it more New Agey, it is all about ‘now’, not ‘later’. So instead of getting stressed about all the stuff you still need to do later, you gently focus on the only thing that is truly relevant: what you can do right now (this is the relaxed-part). And whatever happens during your work hours, you should take it in stride and not get too upset about it (this is the dignity-part). Paying full attention to what you’re doing at the present moment can limit the pressure you may feel on finishing the job. It may even be surprisingly healing or productive to fully surrender yourself to that dreaded paper you need to finish.

My own experience with living according to Benedict’s rule has been nothing but amazing. It was no surprise to me to see that the super-strict structure was beneficial for my productivity. The magnitude of the difference with writing at home or at the office without that clear structure, however, has astonished me. Of course, it helps that I’m at a beautiful castle surrounded by nature, that all meals are prepared and all dishes are washed for me, and that there is no hallway buzzing with colleagues and students outside the library I’m working in. But Benedict has gotten me convinced that it is mostly the structure and the ideas behind it that are so extremely effective. And I would encourage anyone to try it out for themselves!

A final note for the cynics out there: I’ll have you know that I did not procrastinate during the ‘official schedule’ by writing this blog. I actually wrote (most of) it at 5 in the morning.

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Annemiek van Os is a PhD candidate at the department of Organization Sciences. Her research focuses on how organizational members deal with identity threat caused by errors.

This blog was inspired by the following source: Wil Derkse (2003). The rule of Benedict for beginners: Spirituality for daily life (translation by Martin Kessler). Liturgical Press.

3 reasons why we are so bad at predicting our chances of academic success

Vera Scholmerich  by Vera Schölmerich / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

A question that I asked myself at the beginning and throughout my PhD is: “what are the chances that I will be able to pursue a career in academia after my PhD?”. Conversations with fellow PhD’ers at the coffee machine tell me that I am not alone in asking this question. In the absence of a friendly statistician popping by and informing us on our exact chances of advancing, we have to guesstimate what these might be. Humans use mental shortcuts (also called ‘heuristics’) to solve such problems. These shortcuts intuitively feel accurate, but actually provide us with very bad estimates. Borrowing from Daniel Kahneman’s international bestseller ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (2011), I outline 3 major mental shortcuts that lead us astray.

Mental shortcut nr 1: Humans tend to focus on individual cases and neglect statistics, even if the latter are available (Kahneman, 2011, pp. 166). When I first started pondering on my chances of staying in academia, I did not go online to look for data on how many PhDs actually stay in academia. Rather, my first move was to look for individual examples I knew: which of my colleagues that had recently obtained their PhD continued in academia? Last week I heard a fellow PhD declare that our chances of staying in academia were virtually zero because “All of the six fellow PhD candidates that started together with me had to leave academia, so it must be impossible”.

Consequence of this mental shortcut: depending on the (often unrepresentative) individual cases we focus on, our predictions of success rates in academia are either too high or too low. This means that we might be overly optimistic, or pessimistic.

Illustration by David Parkins via nature.com

Mental shortcut nr 2: Human brains are wired to ascribe causal explanations to events (Kahneman, 2011, pp. 169). So when mental shortcut nr 1 leads us to focus on colleagues that managed to stay in academia, we look for reasons as to why this happened. We search for characteristics of these people – intelligence, nr of publications, how hard they worked, etc. “Leah did well because she put in so many long hours and because she is very clever”. The problem, however, is that we are bad at distinguishing between causality (the long hours Leah put in actually contributed to her promotion) and mere association (Leah, like many academics, is a workaholic, but this did not contribute to her promotion). In fact, the finding that most people who do well in academia tend to work long hours might say more about the type of people that work in this profession rather than a necessary attribute for success.

Consequence of this mental shortcut: we are bad at assessing what we need to do in order to advance in academia.

Mental shortcut nr 3: People underestimate the role of luck (Kahneman, 2011, pp. 177). Due to the mental shortcut nr 2, we prefer causal explanations. Causality leaves little to no room for the role of ‘luck’. Especially if you put in a lot of tears and sweat to achieve something, it is difficult to entertain the idea that part of your success was due to pure luck – the mood that a reviewer was in or whether that hotshot researcher from Oxford also decided to apply to the job that you want. When asked by Edge.org’s John Brockman what his favorite equation was, Kahneman replied:

Success = talent + luck

Great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck

Consequence of this mistake: we do not account for the unpredictability of success in academia and incorrectly entirely attribute success (or lack thereof) to the actions of individuals.

Fortunately, there is a way out:

Kahneman provided some tricks for making better predictions, which I have adapted to fit our particular question at hand:

Step 1: Start with the base rate of advancing in academia. This is what I should have done when I first starting thinking about this question (but never did until I started writing this blog…). In the Netherlands about 20% of PhD candidates stay in academia upon completion of their PhD (WOPI 2011). In other words, there is a 1 in 5 chance of advancing in academia.

Step 2: To determine your personal chances of staying in academia, adjust this rate up or down based on individual variables that influence the success rate.

This step is much more difficult in the Netherlands due to lack of accessible data and analyses. One crucial piece of information that we do have is the distribution of women/men in post-PhD positions. Not surprisingly, the percentages of women drop with each jump up the career ladder (women as assistant professors: 33%, associate professors: 21%, professors: 14%, see WOPI 2011). Hence, if you are a woman, your chances are much lower than 1 in 5.

(WOPI, 2011)

A crucial variable is missing, however: we don’t know how many of the 80% of PhDs leaving academia would have preferred to stay. For example, if almost all of the PhDs that left academia did not want to stay anyway, then the future looks quite bright for those eyeballing an academic career!

What are other important variables we need to take into account? My intuition tells me that the characteristics usually proclaimed as important for an academic career – namely being very clever and working long hours – are outdated. Academia is changing, and perhaps other skills are becoming more and more important, such as social skills, cooperation with others, productivity and being able to spot opportunities. However – I’ll leave it up to future research to figure this out – as these answers are also just the product of my mental shortcuts. Have any of the readers come across interesting research that tells us which characteristics we need to include in our guesstimation? I would be enchanted to hear from you.  

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Vera Schölmerich MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology of Erasmus Medical Center and at the Department of Organization Sciences of the VU University Amsterdam. Wedged in between a medical and a social science faculty, Vera looks at how ‘social factors’ influence prenatal health and the organization of maternal health care.

Thumbnail image via clarabridge.com

Searching for the secret to storytelling — How to make a good story great

Marloes Spekman  by Marloes Spekman / Reading Time: 4 Minutes /

Once upon a time, in a land far far away, lived a girl with golden hair and baby blue eyes. She spent her days fantasizing about writing the most wonderful stories that everyone in the world would read and talk about. She dreamed of persuading people of the importance of her research via mind-blowing narrative constructions. And she fantasized about sharing with everyone what fascinates her about the world around her. Thus, she went on a quest to find the Secret to Storytelling.

Along the way, she had to overcome many obstacles (such as the newest version of APA). After a long and exhausting journey, she finally found what she was after all along: the Secret to Storytelling. It was found in the last place she would have expected it. This is the story of her journey.

©animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com
©animatedfilmreviews.filminspector.com

In reality, the girl with golden hair and blue eyes is ‘just another’ PhD student striving to inspire people by sharing her research findings in the best way possible. Yes, me: Marloes Spekman, a PhD student in the field of Communication Science/Media Psychology doing a PhD project within the SELEMCA project.

Strictness of rules

In the last few years, I realized that telling stories is not as simple as it often seems. Sure, there are certain rules for telling your story, in every field or genre. A fairytale, for instance, is expected to start off with “Once upon a time”, just like I did in the introduction here. Most research papers are expected to follow a strict set of rules, such as APA 6th. Conference presentations (at least in my field) usually follow the same order of elements (i.e., introduction, method, results, and conclusion/discussion). Even photography has certain rules, such as the so-called rule of thirds that most photographers keep in mind when taking their photos. However, strictly adhering to the rules often does not deliver the best stories. Rather, doing so usually produces utterly boring end-products. Still, we keep teaching these rules to next generations, so they must be making sense in some way or another, right?

What makes a good story great?

So, I started searching for the answer to the question: What makes a good story great?  To find the answer, I took a number of courses and workshops within the Graduate School and VU University over the years (e.g., Language and Interaction, PhD Success and Personal Efficacy). Surprisingly, I didn’t find the answer there, but it came to me during a talk related to one of my hobbies: photography. Our local Media Markt had invited Eddy van Wessel, a renowned war photographer and winner of the Silver Camera in 2012, to give a talk about his work. During his talk, he showed the amateur photographers in the audience many of his pictures and shared with them under what circumstances he had made the pictures. What struck me about his images was that all of them told impressive stories¹, but very little of them adhered to the ‘photography rules’. For instance, he took pictures in Aleppo, Syria, while the city was being bombed. The images show the devastation the bombs caused, people taking refuge for yet another bomb attack, and the casualties after such attacks. Many of his pictures are either skewed, contain noise, or put the subject somewhere in the middle (while, according to the rule of thirds, the picture would be more interesting if the subject would be placed at one- or two-thirds of the image).

Rules? Stretch and bend them!

And that is when I realized: Telling a good story has nothing to do with your ability to understand and apply the rules, but rather with your ability to be creative with these rules. Sure, you may have to stick to APA rules when writing up a journal article, but that doesn’t mean you cannot be creative in writing. Why not start out with a hypothetical situation to illustrate your problem? Why not use a metaphor to make an abstract idea more tangible? Why not refer to non-academic works that help you in making your point (e.g., movies, comedians)? Why not insert an image or flow-chart to visualize the procedure participants went through? A certain bandwidth exists around the rules, so stretch them, bend them, and use them in any way you like!

After returning home from her quest, the girl with the golden hair and baby blue eyes excitedly ran to her desk, took up her quill, dipped it in the ink pot, and eagerly started writing. As her quill started flying over the paper, she felt less and less restricted in her writing. And she wrote happily ever after!


¹ Many of his photographs can be found on Eddy’s website. Please be aware that some of these images may be rather shocking, so visit at your own risk.

The aesthetics of science — How to visualize your research

Robert Paauwe  by Robert Paauwe / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

In 2012, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced a major discovery related to the Higgs boson (an elementary particle). Unfortunately, most of their presentation looked like this:

CERN
©CERN 2012

Although the findings were a major discovery in particle physics, there was a particular hype in the media regarding the visual appeal of the presentation. The purpose of presenting your work (poster, presentation, blogs, video, etc.) is to communicate. In the case of CERN, the combination of bad typography, poor choice of colors, and the amount of information presented resulted in the aesthetic appeal of your average high school science project. Even if the audience is used to complex graphs and dense information, overloading them with information still harms your story. In this blog I will present some easy, initial steps how to make your research more appealing and communicative without turning into a full-time graphic designer.

LESS IS MORE
Originally, ‘less is more’ was introduced as a minimalist design principle by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It refers to the principle that by using less means to achieve a certain effect will lead to a more appealing result. This is applicable not only for design and architecture, but also for conveying information. A great example of this is the data-ink ratio, as proposed by Edward Tufte. The data-ink ratio is the proportion of ink in a graphic devoted to the display of information that is essential. Hypothetically, the data-ink ratio can be calculated by dividing the amount of ink used to display data by the amount of total ink in used in the graphic. This may sound very abstract, but the visualization below based on Tufte’s work should make it clear. Both graphs convey the same amount of information, however the right graph uses less ink to display this information.

data2ink

The question you should ask yourself when making a presentation is: is what I am doing contributing to the message I am conveying, or am I trying to be fancy? It is better to stick to plain and clear, than (try) to be fancy and miss the point. Adding more things for the sake of adding more things does not help your message, or worse adding things because it was the easiest way to do it (did you copy your tables directly from SPSS?).

TYPOGRAPHY
Which font you use can make the difference in how your work is is perceived. There is not a universally ‘best’ font. It all depends on where and how you apply it (FontFeed is a great resource for information on typography). Selecting a font should be a conscious decision. Some fonts are great for titles, but terrible for entire texts (e.g., Arial Black, Akzidenz Grotesk). Other fonts are amazing for the entirety of the text, but not very eye-catching as titles (e.g., Times New Roman, Adobe Caslon). Some examples:

fonts

But most importantly, if you use a custom font, remember to export your presentation to PDF! The machine you will presenting on will not have that font, and your presentation will look horribly mutilated. By exporting it to PDF, you will ensure your presentation looks the way you intended.

COLOR
The colors you use have a huge impact on if and how your message is received. We all remember that one presentation that burned our eyes whilst squinting to read the slides. A good rule of thumb for color is to have enough contrast between background and type, and do not use complementary colors (colors that are opposite in the color wheel; red-green, yellow-violet, blue-orange, etc.). Some examples:

colors1

A great tool to help you find good color schemes is Adobe Kuler, a tool that helps you generate color schemes based on certain principles. More interestingly, they also maintain a huge database of amazing color schemes for you to use, created by their community. To illustrate this, below are some examples that work well based on popular color schemes on Kuler.

colors2

HIGH RESOLUTION IMAGES
Since Google, it has become amazingly easy to find high resolution images with zero effort. However, at conferences, in papers, and on blogs, I still encounter grainy and stretched low resolution images. When searching for images, simply use:

Google Images > Search Tools > Size > Large or greater.

There are no excuses for not doing this.

DO NOT USE TEMPLATES
Most likely, your university emphasizes that you should use their predesigned templates. Also, it is very easy for you because you do not have to think about your design. However, it makes your presentation uniform and look like all the other presentations. Do not use these templates. All APA articles look the same. All university presentations look alike. Make your own templates.

Of course, these few thoughts are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to making your research compelling and visually appealing. The best way to check if people understand your data, is by asking non-scientists and people outside of your field of expertise to look at your presentation, poster graphs, or tables. If they get the idea (without you explaining every detail), you are in the right direction. Furthermore, if you are interested in novel ways of visualizing data, take a look at Information is Beautiful. They have a large variation of infographics and several ways of making your data more communicative.

To conclude; do nice aesthetics make bad presentations good? No. Neither do poor graphics completely ruin a presentation (regardless of what designers will tell you). However, by being more considerate of the visuals and style you use, you can empower your story, be more communicative, and ensure your message comes across. Will CERN’s next presentation look appealing? I do not know. Will yours? I hope so.