Category Archives: academia

This seems like a weird way to fix peer review

So, it is common to hear scientists complain about peer review, about how it is “broken,” and there is probably something to that. Over at Backreaction, a blog by theoretical physicists at The Economist, Sabine Hossenfelder argues that the future of peer review, on that will fix its problems, is already here, in the form of what she calls “pre-print peer review.”

The idea is to separate the peer review process from the journals, and attach it to the manuscript. So, if I write a manuscript, I would send it out, for a fee, to a peer review service, which might be run by a publishing company, or by some other entity. According to Hossenfelder, once you got back the review,

This report you could then use together with submission of your paper to a journal, but you could also use it with open access databases. You could even use it in company with your grant proposals if that seems suitable.

Okay, so maybe Hossenfelder has a very different perception of what is wrong with peer review than I do. If your ultimate goal is to submit the manuscript for traditional publication, this seems problematic and, ultimately, unsustainable.

Just think for a moment about the dynamics and market pressures. First of all, if authors have control over the reviews that they purchase, one might expect that they will only attach these reviews to their papers when those reviews are positive. Furthermore, if there are multiple peer-review services, the market pressures would presumably drive them all towards more and more positive reviews. Basically, it sets up a system that will be unraveled by “review inflation.” Thinking as a journal editor or grant reviewer, I suspect that I would quickly become very skeptical of these reviews. And I certainly would not be willing to substitute their recommendations for my own judgment and the opinions of referees I selected.

You can imagine ways to address this problem. For instance, certain peer-review services could build reputations as tough reviewers, so that their “seal of approval” meant more. At this point, however, you’ve merely layered on another set of reputations and rankings that must be kept track of. While this approach is billed as a way to simplify the peer review process and make it cheaper and more efficient, I have difficulty imagining that it would not do just the opposite.

Hossenfelder argues that this new model of peer review is not just desirable, but inevitable

irrespective of what you think about this, it’s going to happen. You just have to extrapolate the present situation: There is a lot of anger among scientists about publishers who charge high subscription fees. And while I know some tenured people who simply don’t bother with journal publication any more and just upload their papers to the arXiv, most scientists need the approval stamp that a journal publication presently provides: it shows that peer review has taken place. The easiest way to break this dependence on journals is to offer peer review by other means. This will make the peer review process more to the point and more effective.

First, in what way does this have anything to do with high subscription fees? Most open access journals have pretty much the same peer-review structure that subscription journals have. There are legitimate problems with the current dominance of scientific publishing by for-profit corporations that use free labor to evaluate publicly funded science, and then turn around and charge people a lot of money to access that science. However, given the expanding number of high-quality open-access journals that use the traditional peer review system, it seems like peer review is orthogonal to this issue.

Second, yes, there are many people who feel that they need the peer-review stamp of approval. The potential benefit here is that an author could pay for peer review and then post their work on the arXiv, thereby circumventing journals altogether, and allowing more junior researchers to pursue this publishing model. It just seems to me that an author-funded system that is so easily gamed is unlikely to provide any real sense of legitimacy to anyone with this specific concern.

Third, when she says that this will make the process “more to the point and more effective,” I honestly can’t imagine what mechanism she has in mind. Given that it is published in The Economist, my suspicion is that this claim is based on some sort of invisible hand argument — that if we just free peer review from its shackles, it will become efficient and beautiful. But maybe that’s unfair on my part.

The post goes on to point to two outfits that are already working to implement this model: Peerage of Science (which is up and running) and Rubriq (which is getting started). Rubriq seems focused on the author-pay model, creating a standard review format that could travel from journal to journal. Peerage provides reviews free to authors, and it paid by journals when they use a review and then publish a paper. I’ve not seen anything that addresses the problem of review inflation.

I don’t know. Maybe there’s something I’m missing here. What do you guys think?

Aaron Bady on MOOCs

So, since starting the Ronin Institute, I’ve been giving some thought to how one, as an independent scholar, can participate in teaching. After all, while some independent scholars are happy to be relieved of onerous teaching duties that keep them from their research, most actually like students, and would prefer to be involved in teaching to some extent.

One way to do this is through adjunct teaching at a local college or university. This is not necessarily appealing, though, since it typically pays terribly (for the number of hours you have to put in to do a good job), and it requires you to participate, at least passively, in undermining the traditional employment structure of the university. That is, as an adjunct, you’re basically a scab. (This may or may not be a negative, depending on your position on various things, but it’s not something that really appeals to me personally.)

The other way is through online courses. These are appealing to me in some ways. They are potentially more open, accessible, and democratic. They also feel as if they are more in keeping with the underlying mission of the Ronin Institute. After all, a part of the mission is to build a model of scholarship that is consistent with, well, life. We believe that it should be possible to function as a scholar while at the same time having family or other priorities that control where you live and when you work. Doesn’t that mean that we should be working to extend education to people for whom the constraints of the traditional college system does not work? At least part of me feels like maybe it does.

That leads us to the Next Big Thing™: the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC). This seems like an obvious path for the independent scholar. However, I’ve been hesitant about that path because I’m not yet convinced that anyone has yet figured out how to really make this work. I mean sure, you can record lectures, and you can assign problem sets, and you can even organize online video-chat discussions. But based on my personal experiences with online communications of various sorts, I have this suspicion that these courses, as they currently exist, are missing some critical element. Something that is hard to articulate, but is actually central to a genuine educational experience.

Anyway, that’s the context in which I read Aaron Bady’s new piece in The New Inquiry, where he articulates a number of things that I think are absolutely true, but which had previously existed in my own consciousness in a nebulous, impressionistic form. Go read the whole piece, but among the points he argues are:

  1. MOOCs are being offered as a solution to high student-teacher ratios. This is ironic, since they lead to massive increases in the student-teacher ratio (and a decrease in teacher accessibility).
  2. In California, at least, MOOCs are being used to privatize education, under the veneer of making education “more accessible.” He points out that for-pay MOOCs are not really “Open” in the way that implied by the appropriation of the term.
  3. Good teaching involves attention and response to various paralinguistic cues from the students. It is not inconceivable that there could be online tools to facilitate this, but they certainly do not exist today. And certainly not when the primary product is a pre-recorded lecture.
  4. MOOCs will work best (perhaps only) for self-directed learners, who do not require the pressure and feedback provided by the in-person classroom setting. However, for those people, it is not clear that your typical MOOC provides added value over, say, access to Wikipedia.
  5. Even for the self-directed, a part of the college experience is learning how to interact and exchange ideas with others — debating and disagreeing in a respectful way: “If we take a process of socialization and make it a process of anti-socialization—if to be “at” college, you must be alone in front of a computer—we take the dynamic that creates the legendary poisonous atmosphere of “the comment thread” and use it to create adults.”
Anyway, I’d love to know what others think, especially if you’ve ever taught online classes.

Risk it ALL!

So, I posted this over on the Ronin Blog. Reposted here for your enjoyment.

Hey, here’s a cool video. It’s a sort of advice column from designer James Victore. The advice is obviously framed in a way that is specific to design (and probably art /achitecture as well), but it’s amazing how much of it carries over to, well, everything. It’s something that all you scholars out there should listen to.

Also, this guy’s face is like a crossbow, because just look at his facial hair, and then listen to those truth bolts shooting out of his mouth!

Now get out there!


Newspaper goes Ronin! (Sort of)

So, here’s an interesting development, as reported yesterday by Jim Romenesko. A “real estate entrepreneur and newspaper junkie” named Alan Smolinisky recently bought a weekly newspaper called the Palisadian-Post (of Pacific Palisades, California).

Now, we all know that newspapers have been struggling financially, and that many of them have had to cut back on reporting and editing. This, of course, creates a positive feedback loop. You lose circulation, which means you lose revenues, so you cut back on reporting, which makes you lose even more circulation, and so forth.

Smolinisky is trying a different approach, according to Romenesko, he

dismissed his circulation manager, business manager/controller, graphic designer and publisher so he could beef up editorial.

According to an e-mail from LA Times reporter Marsha Groves, quoted by Romenesko, thereby making this, like, triple hearsay and totally inadmissible,

As a result of the cost savings, the Palisadian-Post was able to restore writers and editors to full-time hours after several years of reduced hours and pay. The editorial staff was also given more color pages and a bigger budget for several new features that they have wanted to do for years. Alan also said every employee was given a raise for the first time in at least seven years. They don’t make much. I know of a seasoned journalist who worked there briefly for a salary in the $20Ks. Kind of shocking.

From a certain perspective, what he is doing is sort of obvious. He recognizes that the core mission of a newspaper is reporting, and he is putting his resources into that. But it seems like everywhere you turn, you hear stories about companies that are cutting the core of what they do, while maintaining or even expanding the “business” side of the business.

At universities, we hear about departments replacing tenure-track faculty with adjuncts, while administrations (and administrative salaries) expand. What if instead, you had a university that responded to financial troubles by diverting more resources to its faculty? This is, of course, purely a thought experiment, as it seems almost inconceivable that any university administrator would make this sort of a move.

The reason I’m writing about this is that it struck me as resonant with one of the things we are trying to do with the Ronin Institute. We are starting from ground zero with researchers, and trying to develop a lean, minimal support system, one that will allow us to focus as many resources as possible directly on the core business of researchers — doing research.

Anyway, I’ll be eager to see how Smolinisky’s experiment with the Palisadian-Post works out.

In defense of the independent academic lifestyle

So, as I noted previously, there was a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about independent scholarship. The article profiled nine scholars, four of whom are affiliated with the Ronin Institute. (Scientiam consecemus!) Unfortunately, the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall. Given that the article’s primary audience is probably unemployed academics, this is kind of ironic, predatory, or clever, depending on your perspective.

Most of the comments on the article were supportive and hopeful — some perhaps posted by people who are anxious about the job market in academia and are pleased to see that there are paths outside of the standard one.

In fact, that is consistent with the most of the responses I have gotten in person, as well. Most people I speak to, including tenured academics, agree that there are certain systemic problems with the way that academia is structured and funded. While they may or may not believe that the Ronin Institute is the (or even a) solution for these systemic problems, they are often enthusiastic and supportive — glad, at least, that someone is trying something like this.

To be honest, this came as a pleasant surprise, as I had expected to find more people who responded out of defensiveness, with a knee-jerk impulse to defend the status quo. I expected this particularly from successful faculty who have tenure, or are on their way to getting it, who benefit most from maintaining the current system. Maybe it’s just that the academics whom know personally are extra awesome (true), or that the skeptical ones have the courtesy to keep their skepticism to themselves.

There are a few of the comments in the Chronicle thread that do seem to reflect the conservative impulse that I had expected to see more of. Normally, I would say it is not worthwhile to address negative comments (especially negative comments that are hidden behind a paywall). On the other hand, I suspect that these comments may reflect attitudes that are fairly widespread in the academic community. One of the challenges that independent and non-traditional scholars face is the attitude that they do not have the authority to participate in the community. So, these comments represent criticisms that need to be addressed.

Let’s start with this comment from “Shanna123”:

Always interested to hear about folks who did not receive tenure. My experience has been that most departments/institutions (I’ve been at 4, either achieved tenure or was granted it coming in at all) strive VERY hard to support and ensure that folks hired in TT positions achieve tenure. So I always wonder about folks who did not achieve this. How are we supposed to evaluate whether someone’s independent/”off the grid” contributions are worthwhile?

First, many independent scholars did not “not receive tenure.” Some have never wanted a tenure-track position. Some have received tenure and walked away from it. Some would, ideally, like tenure, but are geographically constrained. (The fact that the commenter makes a point of pointing out her history of tenure is typical of the self aggrandizing and posturing that pervade so much of academia and make it unattractive to people who got over playing the “who’s cooler” game in high school.)

Second, yes, most universities work hard to support their tenure-track faculty and get them to tenure. However, many universities are also reducing the number of tenure-track positions in favor of adjunct positions, which pay less and provide basically no job security.

Third, and most gallingly, “How are we supposed to evaluate whether someone’s independent/’off the grid’ contributions are worthwhile?” This is pretty simple: YOU READ THE WORK! If you are evaluating someone in the context of reviewing a manuscript, or a grant proposal, or on a hiring committee, you read their work and decide if it is good. If you don’t have the skills or knowledge or time to do this, you have no business evaluating them. If you are simply going to say, “Well, this person got tenure at such-and-such University, I guess they must be good,” you’re not doing your job.

Next, here’s part of a comment from “Docbot”:

Those identified in the story have obviously come to the crossroad of reality and hubris. As an academic myself, I understand the desire to contribute to a field and the joy of having my own views adopted.  However, I also accept that if my impact stalls, or my respect diminishes, so too will my hopes for tenure and future positions. This is our commodity, much like the craftsmanship of a carpenter or the execution of a chef. I find the promotion of this semi-professional academic lifestyle to be irresponsible. Not only is it an unrealistic career path, (ie how do you support a family without health insurance?) it also drives down the wages of full time professors, by providing administrators a pool of mediocre stop-gap replacements.  

This is just a bunch of nonsense. Yes, impact in the field, in the form of scholarly papers, books, seminars, etc. is our chief currency. Docbot somehow assumes that independent scholars are incapable of generating such work. Yes, if you stall, it makes it hard to have impact in the future. This is just as true within the university system as it is outside it (although there are ways to jump start a stalled career).

Re: “I find the promotion of this semi-professional academic lifestyle to be irresponsible”: This is classic  concern trolling. “How do you support a family without health insurance?” Well, I don’t know, YOU BUY HEALTH INSURANCE, DUMBASS!! Yes, the financial instability that accompanies the independent scholar lifestyle means that it is not a path that everyone can pursue. However, maybe you have a spouse with a regular job with insurance. Or maybe you live in any one of the non-US countries with universal health care. A number of the Research Scholars at Ronin have full-time non-academic jobs, and engage in their research in their “spare” time. And before you object that no one could do legitimate research and hold down a forty-hour-a-week job, keep in mind that many academics have forty hours a week of teaching and administration, and they basically do their research in their own spare time.

Finally, about driving down wages of full-time professors, I think Docbot fails to understand the difference between adjunct faculty and independent scholars. I don’t think that there are a lot of administrators are out there hiring cheap “stop-gap” researchers. Also, to the extent to which this point is true, it is, for better or worse, how our economic system works. Docbot seems to feel that everyone else should get out of the way so that he or she can have a good salary without competition. As for the implication that independent scholars are inherently mediocre when compared with traditional faculty, well, I reject that as irrelevant/ridiculous on its face. Or rather, while it may or may not be true that tenure-track faculty do better work on average than independent researchers, it is certainly true that the judgements about pay, funding, publication, etc. should be based on an individual’s skills and qualifications.

Docbot goes on to say:

In closing I would like to add, that in my experience I have always found the anything requiring me to attend a ‘support group’ is something I should change.

First of all, meeting with and communicating with people who share common interests and problems is what non-psychopathic humans do. In academia we hold journal clubs and discussion groups. We go to conferences and symposia. We also meet to discuss specific challenges, to share solutions to shared problems. Would you say that anyone who has ever joined a “Women in Science” group should leave science? That seems to be an implication of your statement here. To denigrate people who do these things in a way that is slightly different from the way that you do it does not make you clever. It makes you a dick.

The last comment I want to respond to is from “wassall”:

Ms. Ginsberg found that “(h)andling a full-time academic job” while raising two preschool-age children “wasn’t feasible.” I work with several colleagues who apparently find it quite feasible. With its generous vacations and summers off from teaching, a tenure-track position seems hard to beat in terms of flexibility while raising a family. Yes there is pressure to publish, but how is this different than the pressure of making partner in your law firm, running your own restaurant, or being responsible for annual sales targets?

This one looks to me almost like astroturf spawning out of that “academics are lazy” / “university professor is the least-stressful job” meme that the Wall Street Journal has been pushing. Enough so that if this comment were posted on my blog, I would probably just delete it. But let’s take it seriously for a moment.

When I read that Ms. Ginsberg (not a Ronin . . . yet!) found that raising two preschool-age children was not feasible, I don’t take that to mean “logistically impossible,” nor would anyone else who was not actively trying to misrepresent her position. I suspect that what she meant was that a traditional academic job is very time consuming, and it requires making certain sacrifices. In her case, she concluded that the sacrifices she would have to make with respect to her two small children were not worth the benefits of a full-time academic job.

Many independent scholars have consciously made the choice to have a smaller paycheck, and less job security, because the greater independence and flexibility is worth it to them. These people are perfectly aware of the consequences of their choices, and are willing to take responsibility for them.

Let’s follow wassall’s analogy with the law firm. Honestly, I suspect that making partner in a high-power law firm makes for a harder lifestyle than getting tenure at a university. Perhaps partly because of this, many lawyers don’t go work for high-power law firms. Some of them take poor-paying jobs as public defenders, or working for nonprofits, because they care about something in the world other than money and prestige. Some of them might go to work for a smaller law firm, maybe even work part time, because they want to be home when their kids come home from school. Some of them start their own law firms, because they have an entrepreneurial spirit and value their own independence.

The idea that you can’t do scholarship if you’re not at a University is like saying you can’t practice law if you’re not in a skyscraper in Manhattan. Now, the path for how to pursue a career in independent scholarship is not as clearly laid out as the paths that lead to becoming a public defender, or starting your own law firm. This is why I believe that “support groups” are valuable, so that people who are interested in developing new models for scholarship can discover and share what works.

Oh, and sorry for yelling. I wasn’t yelling at you. (Unless you are Shanna123 or Docbot.)

International Ronin

So, this is reposted from the Ronin Blog (original here)

In the wake of that article that recently came out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (covered here), I’ve received a few e-mails suggesting that there may be some confusion out there regarding the geographical scope of the Ronin Institute. So, I thought I would just take a moment to try to clear that up.

In concept, the Ronin Institute is a global institution. After all, the future of scholarship is international (just as the future of most everything is). As far as we are concerned, location and national citizenship do not matter. What matters is your work and your citizenship in the community of scholars.

That being said, from a legal perspective, we are incorporated in the United States, and our tax-exempt status was granted here. So, the US is the only place where we have a formal, legal, corporate presence. Similarly, my knowledge of the way that systems of scholarship and funding work is primarily limited to the US system. I basically understand other systems to the extent that they are similar to the US system. This means that, in practice, we might be able to provide the best support to scholars who are US citizens and/or who are in the US. However, as our network (both the Research Scholars affiliated with Ronin and other, like-minded institutions) grows, it will encompass a broader range of circumstances and systems.

We are envisioning two main types of activities. One is to help independent scholars to apply for research funding, including permitting them to apply through the Ronin Institute. For certain types of funding agencies (like government agencies), the fact that we are a US non-profit probably matters, and we may be in a position only to support applications from people in the US. Similarly, if you are in the EU, we might not be in a good position to help you to apply for EU funds at the present time.

Most private foundations are much less constrained on this dimension. Likewise, we expect that most donations from individuals could be disbursed to scholars (e.g., in the form of scholarships for conference travel) without too much concern over nationality and residency.

So, what’s the take-home message here? Well, I’m imagining that you are an independent scholar living outside the US. You’re saying to yourself, “Hey, this Ronin Institute thing is pretty cool. I wonder if I could join? Or should I start my own institute where I am?”

The answer is “Yes” and “Yes.” If you are committed to pursuing scholarship at the highest level, are actively engaged in research, and would like to join our community, get in touch with us at, and we can discuss the process. And, if you’re feeling ambitious and energetic, build something local as well!

Ronin in the Chronicle of Higher Education

So, this is reposted from over at the Ronin Blog . . .

The most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features an article on independent scholarship. It profiles nine independent scholars, four of whom are Research Scholars here at the Ronin Institute (Patricia Appelbaum, Kristina Killgrove, Jay Ulfelder, and me).

If you have a subscription to the Chronicle, you can read the article here. Unfortunately, the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall, which especially sucks since this will be of greatest interest to people who are maybe not in a position to pay for the subscription. For you, here are a few of the highlights:

First, here’s the succinct description of one of the main challenges faced by independent scholars:

Like traditional professors, [independent scholars] perform research, secure grants, and publish books and papers. In some cases, their work is having an impact on their disciplines, challenging established views and advancing knowledge in the field.

But independent scholars say their contributions are frequently discounted by tenured professors, who, as gatekeepers of scholarly conversations and the distribution of intellectual ideas, tend to exclude those who lack university credentials.


The work life of an independent scholar—with its freedom from the performance requirements of the tenure track—can be attractive to those with young children and those who can’t or don’t want to relocate for a faculty job. Yet theirs can be a spartan existence, lacking intellectual colleagues or recognition, a calling that most can afford to pursue only by working extra part-time jobs or relying on a partner’s income. The financial needs of independent scholars can also get in the way of academic freedom by limiting the kinds of questions they are able to ask and the projects they are willing to pursue.

The bulk of the article then focuses on the nine examples of independent scholars, who represent some of the diversity of motivations for people working outside of academia, as well as the diversity of models that people are pursuing to make independent scholarship work.

Near the end is a quote from our website, which sums up one of the primary goals of the Ronin Institute:

“The Ronin Institute is creating a new model for scholarly research that recognizes that the world outside of traditional academia is filled with smart, educated, passionate people who have a lot to offer to the world of scholarship,” its Web site says. “There are tens of thousands of people in the United States alone who have advanced degrees yet do not have jobs that are making use of their knowledge and passion. We are creating structures that will leverage this vast, underutilized resource.”

Of course, the goal is not only to leverage this resource, but to allow would-be scholars (and would-be part-time scholars) to live more well rounded, fulfilling lives.

So grab your swords, all you Ronin!

Scientiam Consecemus!

Scientiam Consecemus!!

So, this is reposted from over at the Ronin Blog:

Here’s an update for those of you who are following the development of the Ronin Institute. We now have an official motto, in Latin and everything:

Scientiam Consecemus

That’s “Let’s Chop Up Some Knowledge” to you.

Thanks go to Research Scholar Kristina Killgrove, who not only came up with the translation, but also indulged my complete lack of Latin by answering a long series of naive yet nitpicky questions.

Now maybe you’re asking yourself, “What the hell sort of motto is that??” Here’s the idea. Traditionally, if a Samurai lost his master, he was expected to commit suicide. Those who did not commit suicide became Ronin, masterless Samurai who made their living in a variety of ways. They had earned the right to carry their swords, only now they were carrying them for themselves.

Similarly, the traditional view in academia is that a scholar is defined by his or her position at a University (or similar research institution). People who don’t have a traditional academic position are expected to commit a sort of career suicide, abandoning their scholarly research. Our perspective is that you’ve earned your skills, and you still have your tools. You don’t need a master in the form of a University in order to put those skills to use.

So grab your intellectual swords, all you masterless scholars! Let’s chop up some knowledge!

Having your awesomest grad school experience

So, welcome back for the third installment of me dispensing advice that no one asked for. Previous advice included two guides, the first to help you decide whether or not you should go to graduate school, and the second to help you to pick a program (and advisor).

Now, let’s fast forward to the point where you’re in grad school, and you’re thinking to yourself, “I wonder what advice that nice young Jon Wilkins would have to help me get the most out of grad school, now that I’m here and all.”

Well, you’re in luck, because here it is:

The Lost in Transcription Guide to Having Your Awesomest Grad School Experience Ever: A Guide

I’m going to assume that you’re already familiar with the basics here. You already know that grad school is hard work, that it requires dedication and creativity and the ability to maintain the veneer of work-life balance. In fact, I’ll assume that you have already mastered the seven habits of highly effective people (list-making, delegation, pretending to pay attention during meetings, not hitting Reply All, fiber, shaking the toner cartridge, and Adderall). Rather, I’m going to let you in on the stuff that I was told, or figured out, that applies specifically to grad school and might not be obvious.

1. Attend Talks, but not too many

If you’re at a large university, you’ll find that there are a crap ton of talks. There are departmental seminar series, topical seminar series, special colloquia, journal clubs, lab meetings and on and on. You could easily spend all of your time going from talk to talk.

The more likely outcome is that you will be so overwhelmed that you will avoid going to talks altogether.

This is a mistake. When you’re deep in your research, it will always seem like whatever you’re working on is more valuable than some talk. In the short term, that’s probably right. Attending talks is part of the long-term game. You go to talks with the hope that they will plant a seed in the back of your mind. That seed might not grow into anything for years. But eventually, when the time is right, it will blossom into a beautiful, original idea.

You will then harvest that beautiful idea and drain all the beauty out of it as you grind it up to fit it into a grant proposal.

One great piece of advice I received was to pick one seminar series (maybe a different one each semester) and go to every talk in the series. This forces you to stretch a little bit, attending some talks you might otherwise skip, while keeping a lid on the total number of talks.

Critically, don’t pick more than one series. You’ll still probably find another talk or two each week that you go to for various reasons. Maybe someone famous is speaking, or maybe the talk is closely related to your work, or maybe your advisor is worried that there won’t be enough people in the audience, or maybe that cute boy from your stats class is going to be there. Ha ha, I’m kidding, of course. There are no cute boys in your stats class.

If you find yourself going to more than three talks a week, you should either raise your standards or paint eyeballs on your eyelids, because there is no way you’re staying awake through all that.

2. Ask Questions

When you’re going to the too many talks that you go to, because you are ignoring my earlier advice, try to make yourself ask a question. You don’t need to ask a question every time. I mean, you don’t want to be that guy. But set hard goals for yourself, like, if you didn’t ask a question at the last talk, you have to ask something at this one.

The point here is not to draw attention to yourself, or to make sure that your advisor knows you are at the talk. (If this is important, you’ve chosen the wrong advisor.)

One very tangible benefit of asking questions in talks is that it keeps you awake. Even if you are in a field where people hold all of their questions till the end, pressing yourself to come up with a good question is a great way to keep yourself engaged.

The other thing asking questions does is help you to start thinking of yourself as a peer in your field. This is maybe the most important transformation you will undergo as a graduate student. As an undergraduate, you probably functioned mostly as a receptacle (for knowledge and/or beer). By the time you receive your PhD, you should be comfortable functioning as a real member of the scholarly community. When you start grad school, you probably view your advisor, and all professors, as some other species. By the time you finish, you should view them as an older, more experienced (and, in my case, better looking) version of yourself.

A lot of grad students feel like they should not ask questions during talks because they should leave that to the people who know more. That’s not peer thinking.

Also, like Big Bird says, asking questions is a good way to find things out!

If you’re having trouble coming up with questions, consider developing some questions that work in any talk. For example, if you work in Theoretical Ecology, try “What happens if you put that on a lattice?” If you’re in Statistical Physics, try “What happens if you substitute one of the generalized forms of entropy?” If you’re in Evolutionary Psychology, try “How does that correlate with the 2D:4D digit length ratio?” I’m certain that you can come up with the analogous question for your own field.

3. Decide when to Graduate

In some systems, like in the UK, there is a standard PhD length. In the US, however, the PhD tends to be more of an open-ended affair. It might take three years, or it might take ten. If you ask how long your PhD should take, the answer will probably be some variant of “as long as it takes to complete your dissertation.”

The secret is that there is no rule about what constitutes enough work to qualify as a dissertation.

There might be standards and norms. For instance, in my field, the rule of thumb is that you write three papers. Then, you write and introduction and a conclusion, staple them all together, and you’re done. But I have known people who have graduated with as many as ten papers, and as few as zero. Some advisors or departments might have stricter guidelines, but even in those situations, you probably have some say in when you graduate.

The advice I was given was this: Decide when you want to finish. Then, a couple of years before that, start talking about this as your graduation date. Soon, everyone will be convinced that you should actually finish then, including your advisor, and, more importantly, yourself. Next thing you know, you’re staying up all night to meet this totally artificial deadline. Moreover, however much work you have accomplished by that point (within limits), your committee is going to look at it and say, “Um, I guess that looks like a dissertation.”

So, how do you decide when to graduate? Well, it depends in part on what you want to do next. If you want to go on in academia (or an analogous, high-end research career), you want your CV to kick ass. You want to have good publications and something that looks like momentum moving forward.

That means you should not graduate too soon. There’s a weird thing. People tend to judge your CV by your rate of productivity: papers per year, or years per book, or something like that. But this rate-based evaluation does not kick in until after you get your PhD. In my experience, the person who published four papers during a three-year PhD comes off as only marginally more impressive than the person who published four papers during a seven-year PhD. Similarly, the seven-year, five-paper candidate often outshines the four-year, four-paper candidate.

On the other hand, grad school might convince you that you want to do something different. Maybe you’ll want to switch fields, or go into industry, or leave research altogether. Maybe you’re going to go into science writing, or go back to Law School and work in patent law. If you’re following one of these paths, the most important thing is going to be the fact of your PhD. If you graduate without publishing, it might make your ascent up the academic career ladder more difficult, but it won’t prevent you from forcing people to call you “Doctor” at parties.

Only good taste can do that.

4. Avoid the Lobster Pot Mentality

Academia is competitive. I mean, it would be really cool if we all got sinecures that let us work on whatever we wanted, and if we all wanted to work on things that were different enough that no one ever got scooped, but related enough that we could all collaborate in some sort of glorious transdisciplinary daisy chain.

Sadly, the reality is that there are limits to all of the resources most coveted by academics: jobs, grants, awards, prestige. If you continue on in academia, you’re going to spend the rest of your career competing with your peers for money, space, and recognition.

Here’s the thing, though. You don’t need to start stabbing people in the back yet.

It is easy in graduate school to let your horizon shrink. Sometimes it will feel like you need to be competing with the other grad students in your program for everything: grades, attention, approval.

Avoid this impulse as much as you can. Your peers from grad school are going to be some of your best friends in your life, and they are going to be your closest allies in your career. Years from now, they’re the ones who are going to suggest your name when someone in their department is assembling a list of speakers for a symposium. They’re going to tend to give you the benefit of the doubt when they’re reviewing your papers or grant proposals.

Sure, maybe it sucks to feel like your advisor’s second best student. Just remind yourself of the long-term benefits. Someday, that best student is going to be your best opportunity for name dropping. “Oh, yeah, I went to grad school with her. Why yes, I am pretty cool. Thank you for noticing.”

5. Don’t Learn a Skill

You might think that learning a skill is the whole point of grad school. You would be wrong. The point of grad school is to learn to be a scholar. A danger, especially in the experimental sciences, is in focusing on developing a set of technical skills at the expense of the conceptual skills that lie at the core of what you need to be learning.

I mean, sure, it’s really cool that you’ve mastered using this multi-million dollar piece of equipment, and maybe you’ve even gotten some cool results out of it. But there are two specific dangers here.

First, technology changes. No matter how cool that machine is, a few years from now it is going to be obsolete. If your expertise is really wedded to the machine, you become obsolete as well. However, if you can keep your eyes on the forest, you will have learned a much more valuable set of skills about how to pose and answer interesting questions. Those skills will transfer over to the next generation of technology just fine.

Second, if you have an unscrupulous advisor, you can find yourself painted into a corner, spending your grad school years effectively as an underpaid laboratory technician. In fact, I have seen cases where a grad student will master a particularly fickle piece of equipment. That grad student then becomes a critical resource for the lab, and their advisor will delay their graduation, so that they can keep milking that piece of equipment for data. Worse yet, you can get stuck being a sort of data mule, playing second fiddle on projects for other students and postdocs, at the expense of developing your own research program.

6. Don’t Be a Helper

Look, if you’ve gone to grad school, you probably have certain personality traits. You’ve probably got an impulse to respect authority, and you’ve always liked to please your teachers. This is part of how you got those good grades.

Some grad students tend to take this to extremes, and fall into a “helper” role. This could mean taking on part of your advisor’s teaching load. It could mean acting as a sort of lab mom/dad. No doubt, your advisor feels overworked and stressed out. If you take some of their stuff off of their plate, they will probably be grateful, and will praise the crap out of you. In general, though, this is not healthy for your own career.

This depends, of course. For example, if your long-term goal is to work at a small college where you mostly teach, taking on additional teaching in grad school might be a good thing. However, you need to make sure that you are getting the credit for it.

7. Be the Youiest You You can Be

Yes, really.

Grad school tends to have a homogenizing effect. Sometimes this is okay. Some things really need to be homogenized, like how we format our bibliographies, or we calculate our p values. However, there are also a lot of things that get homogenized that really don’t need to be.

More specifically, don’t get caught up in other people’s definitions of success. Just because everyone else in your lab wants to get that prestigious postdoc at Johns Hopkins does not necessarily mean that this is what you want.

Also, develop your own interests. People tend to converge on a narrow definition of what constitutes an “interesting” question in their field. This leads to situations where everyone is racing to answer the same question. If you have a different perspective, embrace it. You’re much more likely to do something truly original that way.

Even if you’re wrong, and the question that everyone else is asking really is more important, you should still follow your own interests. The fact is, you are going to do more good for the world working on something that you’re passionate about, even if that something is objectively dumb. So go for it.

Yes, go ahead and get that pierced.

No, I’m not going with you.