Framing your SciComm Message

When you’re communicating, whether about the frustration of finding facial hair stubble in your bathroom sink or the importance of addressing climate change, it’s useful to think not only about the idea you want to get across, but also how you want to get it across. Which words do you want to use, or which ones do you want to avoid, for fear that they’ll make your spouse or conversation partner feel defensive or closed-minded? How do you want to bring up this topic? What other situations do you want to compare it to?

We’re accustomed to framing our everyday conversations carefully in order to maximize the chances of a desired outcome, like a clean bathroom sink, and minimizing the chances of an undesired one, like offending. We need to use this same meta-cognitive strategy — framing — when we communicate all science, and especially when communicating science that some audiences may want to resist.

I’ve created this handout to give an overview of framing in the context of published research. What does research tell us about how we should communicate issues like the importance of vaccinations or addressing climate change? The handout includes takeaways from each of the topics to help science communicators apply research on the science of scicomm.

Click here to download the pdf.

What other strategies would you like to learn more about? I’m brainstorming my upcoming handouts and would love to hear from readers about topics from the science of science communication that would be most helpful.

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Was a PhD worth it? Weighing the pros and cons

As I was wrapping up my PhD work, I found myself having many conversations with peers (some who had already defended, others who were hoping to get it done in the next year): Would you do it all over again? What have you gained in the process? What has disappointed you?

Not surprisingly, different people (even those at the same university, and even within a single department) have very different responses to those questions. Every PhD experience is so different, thanks to the mingling of research area, advisor relationship, and internal goals and values. But I’ve also noticed some recurring themes and insights that I’ll share here.

One way of assessing whether you’re happy with your grad school experience is to do a cost-benefit analysis. Some of the costs and benefits are black-and-white (like 5 years of your life or learning how to program in Python), but many others are implicit. Have you taken more from the experience than it took from you?

Benefits

One friend told me a benefit he’s especially grateful for is sharper analytical thinking skills. Before he came to grad school, he noticed that PhD scientists seemed to think a few steps ahead and approached problems from many angles, and he thinks he’s closer to that point than when he started.

Another friend came to grad school in San Diego to try to find some direction for his career while living in a new place. He, like most of us, loves San Diego, so the city has not disappointed. That friend also feels that he found direction for his career, though not from working on a primary research project for the past 4 years. Instead, he thinks a lot of his progress in figuring out what he wants to do has resulted from being around brilliant and interesting people and having time and space to explore new intellectual topics.

I agree with both of these friends’ assessments. For me, the sense of direction I gained was the realization that I don’t want to be a professor. That realization came from a mix of doing my own academic research and observing faculty members work on and communicate about theirs.

Luckily, I also gained a better sense of what I do want to do, a better understanding of my personal and professional priorities and values. For this direction, I credit many of the non-research aspects of my grad career, like my deep involvement in ComSciCon.

And I also gained skills that I hope will help me not only in my career, but throughout the rest of my life too. For example, I became a better listener, better at extracting meaning from complex ideas as well as intuiting what people actually mean when they say something (or don’t say something). I also became a better communicator, in academic and non-academic writing, as well as in conversations. This includes advocating for myself and for my work, which has been especially challenging to improve. I gained exposure to new ideas and people, and my 4 years in grad school have provided a wonderful environment for developing as a person during my early twenties. I’ve had my world views challenged and have learned to accept myself, and even though those didn’t directly result from grad school activities, the PhD environment set the stage for these changes.

Costs

To be sure, there are costs to doing a PhD. Luckily in the sciences we are paid stipends as grad students and do not pay tuitions, so the financial costs are actually somewhat low. The reason there are financial costs is because PhD students spend 4-7 years making much less with a grad student stipend than their salary would likely otherwise be. And although PhDs probably end up earning more after their degree, so that their time in grad school becomes an investment towards a higher salary later, in general I don’t think this is true to the extent that it is for medical doctors or lawyers, for example.

Beyond money, there’s an undeniable time cost. One of my friends who did feel there were benefits also added that he was unconfident that the benefits outweighed the cost of requiring 5 years of his young adult life to reap them. There’s always some other way you can be spending your time.

But maybe most importantly, doing a PhD has emotional costs. It’s an intellectually trying process filled with potential risks to mental health, like geographic distance from family, failed experiments (which are inevitable and numerous), uncertainty about the present and future, and often challenging academic relationships to navigate.

My Verdict

For me, the benefits of doing a PhD are invaluable, and they easily outweigh the costs. This assessment results in part from the profound benefits I detailed above, but also because the costs were relatively low for me — since I was happy most of the time, I didn’t really feel like doing a PhD cost me time I’d rather be spending in other ways. I’m also somewhat doubtful that I would have been making lots more money doing something else over the past 4 years (and somewhat indifferent about it anyway), so the monetary cost felt negligible.

The emotional costs were probably the ones that had the greatest impact on me, but I was fortunate to have a stellar support system to lean on. In the long run, the emotional challenges have actually become benefits, for example by helping me learn to prioritize my mental and physical health and advocating for myself.

I’m incredibly grateful that for me, doing a PhD was full of benefits that outweighed costs. But I also know that my situation is not always the case. I think it’s helpful for people to try to estimate the costs and benefits before starting a PhD, but also consistently throughout. Doing so may help us realize when we need to make changes in some aspect of our personal or professional life to reset the scale in our favor.

The unhelpful academic/non-academic distinction

I’ve learned a lot in the 4 years since I started grad school, like how to analyze data in R, where to get the best food in San Diego, and how to file taxes (sort of). But one of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that there are two types of PhD holders — those who work in academia, and the others (people who pursue careers labeled as non-academic or alternative [to my knowledge, there’s no systematic difference in the way these terms are used]).

When you’re in academia, being part of the others is generally undesirable. Jacquelyn Gill described one pervasive mindset, that academics say “to the general public, ‘we want you to value us and our work, and be informed citizens, but we don’t want to walk amongst you– we are not you.'”

A lot of people ascribe to this strong categorical distinction between PhD holders “in” and “outside” the academy. But it’s a puzzling way to think about careers one might have with a PhD.

Talking about careers as either academic or non-academic suggests that those two are mutually exclusive, maybe even opposites in meaningful ways. But actually, whether PhDs are academics or non-academics, there are a lot of similarities in what their careers often entail: applying analytical and research skills to solving new problems, collaborating with others, reading, writing, teaching, and presenting. On the other hand, the only true difference between PhD-holding academics and non-academics (that I can think of) is whether their paycheck comes from a university or other organization (and even here there’s some flexibility). Is that difference really a meaningful one? One that warrants constantly separating PhDs into two distinct categories?

I also suspect that referring to non-academic or alternative careers turns many graduate students off of exploring those paths. If you had to choose to have either coffee or alternative coffee, what would you choose?! What if the alternative option was rebranded, maybe as a mocha or green tea? Under a new label, the option likely becomes more appealing for some people, and it definitely becomes more informative. Defining a massive suite of careers simply by what they are not is not very helpful.

Then why are so many careers referred to alternative or lumped together as non-academic?

In the not-too-distant past, receiving a PhD and embarking on a career that wasn’t traditionally academic was much rarer than it is today. There were fewer people graduating with PhDs than there are today, and there were almost as many academic jobs available as there were new PhDs, so remaining in academia was much more common. Now there are fewer available academic faculty jobs relative to graduates, and an exploding number of ways to apply PhD skills outside the academy.

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Figure from The missing piece to changing the university culture, (2013). Maximiliaan Schillebeeckx, Brett Maricque & Cory Lewis. Nature Biotechnology 31, 938–941 doi:10.1038/nbt.2706

If we want to have meaningful discussions about PhD holders’ careers, we need to go beyond an academic/non-academic dichotomy.

Luckily, many people and groups are already raising awareness of the vast space of possibilities for PhD holders. For example, I’ve enjoyed following #withaphd discussions on Twitter, since they’re often initiated by PhD holders with jobs that help me realize there’s no end to the creative, impactful, and innovative work PhDs can do throughout their careers. I also participated in a Questioning Career Transition Group (though I do think the word “transitioning” reinforces the distinction I don’t love) at my university. In the group, we were guided through the process of introspecting on our values and goals for our careers, and to translate those into concrete career-related steps. I’ve also found the book So what are you going to do with that? to have great resources and anecdotes for PhD students thinking about post-defense possibilities.

These resources are helpful for raising awareness of the vast world that we often lump into the non-academic or alternative categories. I’m glad they exist. But I think we can and should go further to be more conscientious of our tendencies to juxtapose academic work and everything else, and the way this distinction might hinder career possibilities for grad students and PhDs.

I’m biased, and so are you. Considerations for SciComm

I really like being right. Chances are you do too, because we humans are psychologically inclined to seek out evidence that suggests we’re right. We tend to interpret neutral information in our favor and contrary information as flawed. These related tendencies are often referred to as confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is inevitable, and it colors how every one of us sees the world. If I’ve just received an email from a student asking me to bump their grade up so they can get into med school, I might start grumbling to myself about my lazy students. Then as I’m ruminating on lazy students, I might interpret the next student’s well-intentioned question as a manipulative attempt to score higher on the exam. In other words, I may interpret this latter interaction as confirming my feeling that arose from the prior one — the students’ laziness — even if the second student wasn’t lazy or manipulative at all.

Confirmation bias can, in part, explain why there are still way too many parents who don’t have their children vaccinated. Once they believe that vaccines might be harmful for their children, they seek evidence to confirm that belief — for example, clinging to the very small percentage of people who do have adverse reactions to vaccines. Even an overwhelming amount of data demonstrating the benefits of vaccines and the fact that the vaccines-and-autism rumors started from completely fraudulent “science” will not persuade this person. They’ve chosen which evidence to believe and which to discard, even if they don’t necessarily see it as a conscious choice.

An audience’s confirmation bias can be extremely frustrating for science communicators. It can make it feel like communication attempts are futile, since some members will already have their mind made up, and will interpret new information through the lens of their current belief.

But successful science communication is not just a process of information transmission. The idea that the public just hasn’t received enough science info, and that they’ll hold more pro-science beliefs and make more pro-science decisions is incredibly misguided. Confirmation bias illustrates why heaping information on people will not change minds if they have contrary beliefs they seek to confirm. I’ve written about this before, and so have many other great writers.

We need to meet our audience where they’re at: LISTEN, recognize their concerns, find common ground, and empathize with them. Start there, and then share your message.

For science communicators: Your audience is going to have cognitive biases. It’s important not to let your awareness of their biases color how you think of the people you’re communicating with. In fact, if you start to characterize your audience as stubborn or irrational because their biases act as obstacles to accepting the science you want to share, you are falling prey to yet another cognitive bias —  a fundamental attribution error, or a correspondence bias. This bias plays out when we attribute someone else’s behaviors to their personality (for example, they’re not understanding my science because they’re irrational) more than we would attribute our own behaviors to our personalities.

Remember, you, too, have cognitive biases. Although at times those biases might drive you to make stubborn or irrational conclusions, you probably don’t think of yourself as a stubborn or irrational person. Instead, you might recognize that your unique background and your current circumstances have led you to make biased decisions. Acting stubborn in a certain context does not necessarily make you a stubborn person. We must remember this is true, even when we’re communicating with seemingly stubborn people.

So when you’re communicating, recognize that your audience has cognitive biases — this part, I think, is not too hard. What’s more difficult is to also recognize that you have cognitive biases. No real communication can happen until you do this — until you acknowledge that your audience is comprised of human beings, all of whom have wonderfully complex cognitive baggage, just like you.

Thriving while PhDing, Part 2: Personal Resources

Doing a PhD is not only difficult on an academic level, but on a personal one as well. In a previous post, I discussed guides and resources that helped me thrive academically in grad school, and here I’ll discuss resources that have been central to my well-being during that time.

  • People. I am incredibly fortunate to have a solid support network, especially supportive parents, loving siblings, and a stalwart spouse. The more you can surround yourself with people who have their act together and respect your PhD work, the better off you’ll be.
  • Exercise. Of course, an appreciation of the benefits of exercise is hardly unique, but consistent exercising has helped my physical and mental health. In research, sometimes you’re stuck or you run a whole experiment and realize it was fatally flawed. In exercise, every single time you go for a run or pick up a hand weight, you are making positive progress, and that reliability should not be underestimated. I’ve also found that training for a half marathon in my first year of grad school gave me the opportunity for contemplating my research, but maybe more importantly, it helped me develop goals that were outside my PhD, and to build my self esteem and feeling of accomplishment.
  • Related to exercise… an exercise community. For me, this has partly taken the form of going on runs with another friend in my PhD programs — these runs are often as therapeutic as they are physically taxing. I’ve also found a community at my local YMCA, which has incredibly reasonable membership rates and fitness classes that have encouraged me to try new things in a welcoming environment.
  • Camp Calm. This 30-day meditation program has helped me reframe anxiety and stress. The program includes short readings and meditation instructions every day for 30 days, and I’ve repeated the program at times when it’s felt necessary. It’s been incredibly useful to practice observing my thoughts without judging them.
  • Science communication, especially ComSciCon. I’ve always been interested in communicating, but grad school really ignited my interest in communicating science. I attended ComSciCon, a national workshop that helps grad students build science communication leadership skills, at the end of my second year of grad school. The following year, I was on the program organizing team, and founded a local ComSciCon in San Diego. The next year, I chaired the national conference’s program organizing team. I experienced the SciComm community at ComSciCon and was hooked. It has been especially gratifying to feel that I’m contributing positively to society through science communication work, and SciComm has provided an intellectual outlet that still gives me a break from my own research.

I can’t thrive academically if I’m not thriving personally. These are a few of the resources that have been central to my physical and mental well-being during grad school.

Wars are everywhere: When should we use these metaphors, and when should we reframe?

How many wars have you encountered today? Maybe you saw a headline about the war in Afghanistan or elsewhere, but it’s even more likely that you read an article or had a conversation about a figurative war: like the war on cancer, obesity, or poverty. Maybe you’ve even heard about wars on salad, plastic bags, or Pantsuit Nation. There are a lot of wars going on right now.

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A recent paper by Stephen Flusberg, Teenie Matlock, and Paul Thibodeau shines a spotlight on these war metaphors. The researchers combine insights from psychology, linguistics, and sociology to discuss why we use war metaphors, how they shape our thinking, and recommendations for productively communicating about figurative wars.  Here are some things I learned while reading their paper.

Why so many wars?

One study found that 17% of all Times Magazine articles published between 1981 and 2000 and 15% of all Newsweek articles published in the same time span contained at least one war metaphor. Considering the breadth of topics those magazines cover, the figures suggest that there are a lot of figurative wars in their pages (and, by extension, in public discourse).

There are a couple explanations for the popularity of war metaphors. First, they draw on common shared knowledge. Most people know a lot about literal wars. We have structured knowledge about them — for example, that wars are caused by disputes, involve militaries that engage in different forms of physical fighting, and that wars end with winners and losers. When someone uses a war metaphor, then, their audience will almost definitely understand the domain being referenced and will have a wealth of knowledge to connect to the topic at hand.

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War metaphors also carry a sense of urgency. They can tap into emotions, capture attention, and motivate action. These features are helpful when a communicator’s intention is to change the way people think and behave about something. For example, referring to a war on obesity might trigger a sense of fear and urgency for many people, inspiring them to get off their couch or advocate for healthier school lunch options.

Another reason war metaphors are used often is precisely because they’re common. We’re so familiar with war metaphors that when we encounter one it’s not difficult to process it; we can do so almost automatically. This process acts like a growing snowball — the more we encounter war metaphors, the more natural they are to us, so the more likely we are to keep using them. Fighting cancer is a good example of this, since it’s such a common sentiment that we hardly even notice it’s a metaphor anymore.

Are war metaphors helpful? Hurtful?

Yes.

Studies show that war metaphors can instill a sense of urgency and motivate people to change their mindsets and behavior, which is often necessary. For example, when people read about a war against climate change, they felt more urgency for reducing emissions and indicated they were more willing to change their behaviors to reduce their carbon footprint than when they read about a race against climate change. The intensity of the war metaphor shaped mindsets in a way that the race metaphor did not.

But war metaphors can also have unintended counterproductive consequences for the way people think about issues. For example, when a cancer experience is referred to as a battle, people are more likely to think the sick person will feel guilty if they don’t recover than when it’s referred to as a journey. For patients, referring to their experience as a war can be de-motivating, as shown, for example, by a study that found that people who thought of their experience as a battle experienced more anxiety and depression than those who thought of their experience as a journey. War-terms also make people less likely to endorse cancer prevention behaviors than neutral terms.

People also have less favorable views of police officers when they’re referred to as warriors than as guardians, and they’re more likely to endorse violence when war metaphors are used in a political context or in a discussion of a worker strike. These instances of war metaphors that lead people to reason in counterproductive ways underlie my discomfort with the war on science.

Ursula Le Guin’s thoughts about war metaphors sum up one of their major limitations:

War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off.

Guidelines for using war metaphors

Metaphors shape thought by tapping into our complex and structured ways of thinking about the world, and emphasizing certain features of the topic at hand. For this reason, metaphors will mean different things for different people (and especially across different cultures) and in different contexts, so their effects on reasoning will vary. There’s no black-and-white advice for whether to use war metaphors or not, but research has started to reveal how they affect reasoning in different circumstances. This research has paved the way for a few recommendations:

  • Use war metaphors when the topic being described really poses an imminent threat, since they can tap into people’s emotions and incite fear. Climate change is one of those issues. Salad is not.
  • Use war metaphors only when the topic being described actually shares features with wars. If people can’t immediately understand why something is being compared to a war, the metaphor will likely detract from any effective persuasion.
  • Use war metaphors initially, and then reframe. They can draw attention to an issue and elicit an emotional response, but they lose efficacy over time as they become overly familiar and people tune out (just as public enthusiasm toward literal wars tends to wane over time).
  • Explain how the issue at hand is like a war, and how it is not. Since war frames will not have the same effect in all contexts, misunderstandings can be avoided by explaining the connection between the given topic and a war, instead of expecting all people to identify the same connections in all circumstances.

War metaphors make up a large part of public discourse, so it’s important for us to keep working to understand how they shape our thoughts and when they should be used (or avoided). This paper provided a useful analysis for communicators who want to help people think about some of society’s most pressing issues in new ways. But since we still have a lot of research to do on these metaphors, communicators should wield them with caution.

Thriving while PhDing, Part 1: Academic Resources

As I’m wrapping up my PhD, I’ve been reflecting a lot (my alternative is to write my dissertation, so…). How have I gotten where I am? What are the ingredients that have helped me develop a research program on the relationship between metaphor and cognition, to present and publish this work? What wisdom have I absorbed as I’ve woven eleven experiments into a behemoth of a thesis?

I credit much of my own success to many resources that other people have been generous enough to create and share. Here I’ve compiled a list of my favorites — those that provided ideas or skills that I latched onto and others that I wish I had discovered earlier.

General Guides & PhD Advice

  • Philip Guo’s (free!) PhD memoir: It’s awesome to read about someone else’s experience doing a PhD, even though much of the PhD process differs greatly from one person to the next.
  • So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.! by Ronald Azuma: Discussing many of the most important traits for success in a PhD program, including initiative, tenacity, flexibility, interpersonal skills, organization skills, and communication skills. Azuma also includes insights on choosing an advisor and committee, keeping perspective while in grad school, and seeking a job after.
  • Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students by Stephen Stearns: This one has some points and that I especially appreciate now, at the tail end of my PhD, like psychological problems are the biggest barriers and avoid taking lectures — they’re usually inefficient.
  • Ten types of PhD supervisor relationships – which is yours? by Susanna Chamberlain. Every advisor is unique, so might not actually fit into these 10 types, but your relationship with them is crucial for your mental help and academic success. Put in the effort to figure out the dos and don’ts of working with your supervisor, and take managing that relationship very seriously.
  • How to manage your PhD supervisor by Kevin O’Gorman & Robert MacIntosh. This topic is seriously really important. This piece includes concrete recommendations.
  • Five things successful PhD students refuse to do by Dr. Isaiah Hankel. Because what you don’t do is sometimes just as important as what you do.
  • Deliberate Grad School by Andrew Critch. The point is simple, yet something that’s really hard to remember when you’re entrenched in a PhD: “you have to be deliberate to get the most out of a PhD program, rather than passively expecting it to make you into anything in particular.” This article is focused on the ways you can actually make the world a better place while working on your PhD, which I find a really productive way to think about the process.
  • A survival guide to starting and finishing a PhD by Nathan Yau. A post in which the author reflects on what he’d tell his pre-PhD self if he could go back in time. His heartening conclusion: “A PhD can be fun if you let it.”
  • The N=1 guide to grad school (and hopefully, knowledge work) by Adam Marcus, with friends. Some of the advice here applies mainly to computer science, but it’s a thorough and interesting read with plenty more links contained within for those who want to go down the grad school rabbit hole.

Intangibles

  • Academic “older siblings”: These people don’t need to actually be older than you, they just need to have some wisdom and background in your field that you admire. Ideally, they’re not faculty, but are instead grad students or post docs, since they’ll be much more likely to have time to walk you through that new analysis or might be better at identifying with your grad school troubles. My academic older sibs were not in my lab, but our research areas were similar. It was always a morale boost to be able to learn from and emulate people a few steps ahead of me in their academic careers.
  • Talks and questions: Go to as many talks as you can in your first couple of years. Pay attention to the way the speaker frames their topic — what kinds of information are they telling the audience? How do they weave theory and experiments together? How do they present their findings? What kinds of questions do people in the audience ask? This will provide implicit learning opportunities. Before you can do great research, you have to truly internalize what great research in your field is. Reading papers is another way to do so, but I found the in-person observation experiences to be irreplaceable.
  • Contribute to the academic community: It’s important to pull yourself out of your own work and participate in your intellectual community. You can pick up beer for happy hour, cook a dish for the department holiday party, or volunteer more regularly. I spent one year as the grad student rep at faculty meetings, which taught me tons about the dynamics of the department and allowed me to make sure grad student voices were heard when topics of interest to us were discussed. I also spent two years as the larger Cognitive Science Society’s grad student rep, and contributed to the society website and social media, served on a committee to assist scientists who couldn’t come to our annual conference because of the travel ban, and created an event at the conference to offer a professional development opportunity to grad students. It’s important to do things like this because we depend on our departments and societies to support and promote our work, and it sometimes has unexpected personal benefits too, since influential people in your field now know who you are and that you can get stuff done.

Specific Skill Resources

If you’re in a science field, there will probably be technical skills you need to learn or improve for your research. For me, that was mainly programming: I had to figure out efficient ways to implement experiments on the computer, often online, and to analyze the data they generated.

  • Data Science courses from Johns Hopkins on Coursera. I did a handful of these courses, and they were helpful for learning to use R for statistical analyses. A strength of these courses was that they gave a good sense of context, so I could actually apply the principles they discussed to my own data. Importantly, you do not need to pay for these. You can audit every class in the series.
  • R Resources. Dan Mirman’s Cheat Sheet here is extremely helpful. It’s well-organized so that even when you’re not quite sure what function you’re looking for, you have a sense of where on the sheet to look. Once you find the function, the sheet tells you how to use it.
  • How much statistics do psychological scientists need to know? Also, a reading list by Xenia Schmalz. Her answer to “how much statistics…?” is “As much as possible,” which resonates with my experience. I actually just recently found this guide so haven’t taken advantage of many of the resources suggested, but they look great.
  • Statistics Tutorials by Bodo Winter. Linear models and mixed models have become extremely popular in my field, because they allow you to model your data and understand how much variance your factors (as main effects and interactions) explain, while also taking individual participants and stimuli into account. Because they’re so powerful, they’re also a bit complicated to learn, but I’ve returned to Bodo Winter’s tutorials many times because they describe what’s really going on when you use these models and include detailed examples.
  • jsPsych by Josh de Leeuw. jsPsych is a “JavaScript library for creating and running behavioral experiments in a web browser,” which is incredibly useful for making experiments available to a broader audience than the typical participant pool (undergraduates who can participate in person) and for collecting data quickly. There’s thorough documentation, a tutorial for getting started, and a Google group for getting help when you hit snags. I used jsPsych for at least half of the experiments that have made it into my dissertation.
  • Research Digest: Thinking about Statistics by Christopher Madan. A great reading list covering statistics concepts to actually help you understand what all your numbers and analyses mean.

These lists just scratch the surface of resources that have helped me thrive academically while working on my PhD. Please let me know if you have other favorites I should consider adding.

In my next post, I’ll continue to share resources that have been crucial to my success in grad school, but this time I’ll focus on my top personal resources — things that helped me stay healthy, both physically and mentally, and motivated to do my work.

You think you want to do a PhD… Where to start?

Five years ago, as I began my final year as an undergraduate, I had taken the GRE, crafted a list of cognitive science and psychology faculty whose work fascinated me, and started drafting my personal statement to apply to PhD programs. I wanted to be a professor, so I knew a PhD was a step I would take.

But honestly, at a small liberal arts college, I had had little exposure to graduate students at that point (though I had spent a summer volunteering in a lab with some phenomenal grad student role models). My work study “research assistant” jobs had included reading sentence after sentence and tagging each part of speech (computer science), “helping” a professor design a survey about college students’ study habits (psychology), and fetching books from the library (religion). So I wasn’t super versed in what it meant to do research.

Nonetheless, I wanted to do a PhD. Maybe you’re in a similar boat as an undergraduate, or maybe you’ve already graduated and gotten a job, and you feel called back to grad school. This guide reflects what I’ve learned from my own experience and from observing others applying to PhD programs. My experience is specifically in cognitive science, officially considered a “social science,” so this advice may not pertain to others in very different fields.

Reasons to do a PhD

As Craig Ferguson said about comedy, I’m convinced you should only do a PhD “because you can’t not do it.”

Research is the defining feature of a PhD. Most of your time in grad school is centered around completing research (which can be slow at times, since you’re often learning the necessary skills as you go). PhD courses are often focused on synthesizing existing research, and conferences are for sharing new research.

You know you’re called to do research if you have questions about how the world works that you don’t think have been addressed yet. In my case, I had read cool papers about how language seems to shape thought, but I still needed to know really, how does that work?!

These points probably make it clear why a Andy Greenspon points out: “A PhD program is not simply a continuation of your undergraduate program.” A love of taking classes, of being a student in the way most of us think of it, is not on its own a good reason to do a PhD. If you’re still a little fuzzy on what life in graduate school is actually like, talk to as many grad students as you can, and search for more info online to try to learn more about their experiences. One piece I especially like is by Richard Gao, another grad student in my department, at the end of his first year.

Grad students are eager to share.

Prerequisites

Do you need a Master’s to get into a PhD program? No. Definitely no. Master’s programs are usually focused on coursework, and they often teach very different things than are required for a PhD. You’ll take courses in the process of getting a PhD, and you will technically acquire a Master’s degree along the way.

You will be a great candidate for a PhD program if you have research experience and questions that drive you, not if you have an extra degree on your CV.

Where to apply

Resist the urge to add all the Ivies to your application list as a default. A GradHacker post On the Art of Selecting a Graduate Program tells readers, “the reputation of a university as a whole does not equal the reputation of a university’s departments.” People in your field are not necessarily wooed by seeing that you earned a PhD from Harvard if Harvard is not actually a leader in your field. A generally prestigious university can have mediocre departments, and a less prestigious university can have some top-notch departments. It’s crucial to focus on where the great research in your field is taking place.

“Good” departments are determined by the faculty who work in them. This means that your search should be researcher-driven. Whose work are you excited by? Make this list. This it your dream team.

Then, what other researchers have those researchers collaborated with? Whose work do they tend to cite in their papers? And who often cites the dream team? Add those researchers to your list, and look up everyone’s affiliations. You now have a first draft list that likely includes the best institutions for you and your interests. And since your search is researcher-focused, the next appropriate step is to look up the other researchers in the same program.

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An article by Joan E. Strassmann has more Q&As about choosing your program that will likely also be helpful.

Actually applying

By now, you have a good sense of the importance of research for the PhD process. Your application should reflect that understanding. You should be comfortable talking about the research you’ve been a part of (both in writing and in person, should you get an in-person interview). What was your role? What methods were used, and why? What were the findings, and what do they mean? What questions remain?

Why do you want to pursue a PhD? What are your long-term goals? What skills do you hope to gain from the process, and what research questions do you want to work on?These are questions you should be able to answer for yourself before you apply, but you also need to be ready to articulate them for others when you do. You won’t be accepted to a PhD program if your application doesn’t make it clear that your goals and research interests fit with those of the people already in the program you’re applying to.

Applying for a PhD requires a lot of intellectual self-reflection. It’s not easy. But it’s necessary to do this work before jumping head-first into a multi-year commitment (4-7 years is within the normal range from my experience). Once you start working on a PhD, you might realize that the questions and goals that initially drove you to start have changed. That’s ok, of course, and maybe even common. But the more self-reflection you do and information you gather about your field ahead of time, the more you will be set up for success once you actually begin grad school.

Crowdsourced questions and answers about doing a PhD

About once a week, I receive an email notification that someone has added a new PhD-related question to Quora. Sometimes I read the question and notice that I’ve often wondered the same, and other times I read it and realize I never even thought to ask the question.

What are the benefits of getting a PhD?

I’d be seriously misguided if I hadn’t thought a lot about this. The most obvious answer is that in the course of earning a PhD, you gain research skills that can be applied in your career after grad school. Many people still think of a PhD as training for a life in academia — and while achieving a PhD is the only route towards becoming a university professor and researcher, becoming a professor and researcher is not the only productive use of a PhD.

The range of responses to this question on Quora demonstrates that there are lots of non-obvious benefits of earning a PhD. Fahad Ali points out that working towards a PhD can be intellectually satisfying, can help build confidence, and “[y]ou’ll learn how to be tough (mentally tough that is) from all the grilling, criticizing, and second guessing you will have to endure…” Abhinav Varshney added that you will cultivate patience and the habit of observing things closely, since good research and breakthroughs are built on many small things.

What are some skills that every Ph.D student should have?

So many suggestions! A few on this thread that especially resonate with me:

  • Independence
  • Critical thinking
  • Attention to detail
  • Thoroughness
  • Humility
  • Ability to collaborate

Some of these may come naturally, but in my experience, even if they don’t, they can be cultivated.

How can a graduate student make the best out of his/her PhD experience?

My own advice stems from something I often struggle with: just be present. Try not to think of a PhD as a means to an end, but instead as an experience in which much of the benefit is in the process itself. Immerse yourself in your field, your work, and building relationships with the people around you.

Scott Fahlman, a Quora responder, similarly advocates for focusing on the aspects of a PhD experience — like the ability to delve into a topic you’ve chosen — and considering ways to maximize those unique aspects. He notes that working with a PhD advisor is an opportunity to learn from someone at the top of their field, and that other graduate students present opportunities for learning from brilliant and interesting peers.

If you’re ambitious (and most of us are), a lot of the stress you feel will be self-inflicted. So try to modulate your ambitions and not try to solve the most cosmic problems in the 3 or so years available for PhD research. There is an after-life for most students, so try to save something to work on during the rest of your career. (Do as I say, not as I did.) -Scott Fahlman

Similar advice reminds people that to receive a PhD, you don’t need to be the smartest… PhDs are earned through hard work. But on the flip side, perseveration on a dissertation isn’t the path to success: “The best type of dissertation is a completed dissertation.” Joseph Perazzo sums a lot of the advice up well: “Making the best out of the PhD experience, in my opinion, requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone. You can’t be afraid to meet people, ask questions, and learn learn learn!”

I’ll leave off with one of my favorite question-and-answer combos:

How did Ph.D students become so good at writing? 

  • “Uh, they didn’t. From talking with many of my academic colleagues, it’s clear that the large majority of graduate students do not become good at writing even when they graduate and defend their PhD.” -Ben Zhao
  • “Your question is worded (grammatically) to imply that they are good at writing. Which I disagree with.” -Maxine Power
  • They didn’t… PhDs learn how to research topics. (And, frankly, they often don’t do that well, either.) Their writing often lumbers and lurches along—inelegant and often unfocused.” -Donald Tepper

The assertion that PhD students, by and large, are not very good at writing is a recurring theme in the responses to this question. I love this in part because I know I’m not nearly as good at academic writing as many people I collaborate with. But I also love it because it reminds us that achieving a PhD doesn’t necessarily mean mastering research skills in your field (I consider writing about research to be a research skill). When you earn your PhD, you’ve contributed at least a drop of knowledge to a much larger pool, and you’ve massively improved and honed your research skills. But the PhD is not a magical transition from apprentice to master researcher — all throughout your career, you’ll continue to improve. The PhD is a first step of many.


You can find more curated questions and answers about the PhD experience in an earlier post.

If social unrest is like fire, how should we extinguish it?

We’ve seen a lot of social unrest in the past year, a grave fact we were reminded of recently by a deadly white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, VA and subsequent spinoff clashes around the country. How should we talk about these events when people gather in defense of their key beliefs, particularly when such protests devolve into chaos and jeopardize safety?

A recent paper by Christopher Hart points out that we often use fire metaphors to describe civil unrest. I searched for some fire-related words on Twitter, and sure enough, without including anything related to civil disorder in my searches, came up with commentaries related to social unrest:

Do fire metaphors shape the way we think about these instances of social unrest? Do they contribute to a perceived legitimacy of police using a water cannon in response to the unrest?

These are the questions Hart’s experiments set out to address. Participants experienced one of the following conditions:

  • #1: Description of a protest using literal language (like “Protests have overwhelmed the city…”), accompanied by a picture from the protest (like a person damaging a car)
  • #2: Same description as #1, accompanied by a picture from the protest in which fire was present (like someone burning a car)
  • #3: Same description as above, but the description used metaphorical language, comparing protests to fire (instead of “Protests have overwhelmed the city…” it said “Protests have engulfed the city…”). This description was accompanied by the same image is as Condition #1 (no fire in the image).

These conditions allowed the researcher to compare the impact of metaphorical language on beliefs about the protests to the impact of seeing the metaphorical language’s literal counterpart — actual fire — on beliefs. After exposure to one of these three fictional stories about a protest, participants indicated how logical and how justified they believed it was for police to use water canons at the protest.

As predicted, when people saw fires in the image (accompanying the literal description), they found it more logical and justified to use a water cannon at the protest than when the image did not show fire (but had the same description).

The metaphorical fire language did not encourage people to legitimize the use of a water cannon as the image of fire at a protest did. The researcher suspected it may be that the metaphorical language could not shape the way people thought about the protests when it was accompanied by a visual image in which fire was not present — information in the visual modality may have overruled any effects of the linguistic metaphor on how people thought about the situation.

To test this follow-up prediction, the next experiment used the same two text conditions (literal, as in the prior conditions #1 and #2; or metaphorical, as in condition #3), but had no accompanying images.

In the second experiment, people who read the text containing the fire metaphors were more likely to legitimize the use of a water cannon than those who read the text with the literal description. Even though there was nothing about literal fire in those descriptions, people felt that using a water cannon was seen as more legitimate as a result of fire-related metaphorical language.

Together, these experiments show that an image of fire included with information about a protest or metaphorical language that compares the protest to fire can encourage people to view the use of a water cannon as more logical and justified than the same information without fire images or metaphors.

This work is a great reminder that we need to mind our metaphors, even — or especially — when communicating about emotionally charged issues and current events.