Monday, 23 May 2016

Post 83: Book Review: Scheduled Writing, Habitual Writing, or "How to Write a Lot"

This post is written with, once again, big hugs and thanks to my colleague Dr. Garrett Richards, now a post-doc at the University of Saskatchewan, who recently recommended the book the title of this post refers to.

"How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing" by Paul J. Silva is a practical, no-nonsense book geared at helping academics (and graduate students) learn how to write more productively. While the book specifically targets psychology graduate students and academics, its principles are general enough to appeal to those across other disciplines, too.

From my reading of the first—excellent—three chapters, the basic messages of the chapters are this:

1. Writing is a skill that can be learned, especially if one is willing to put in the time to learn how to write well.
2. "Academic writing should be more routine, boring, and mundane than it is."
3. Scheduled, regular writing is more important than the number of hours in a day or days per week. (This is the establishing the mundane part of writing.) 
4. Any of the common excuses you make for not writing are not good ones, so don't make them. Some of the common and pervasive excuses that the book blasts in Chapter 2 are:

Wisteria on campus at one of the Chapel entrances. Very lovely!
A. You don't 'have the time' to write; you do: you allocate time to write every week/day, and are rigid about that time. This way, writing is regular and expected. 

B. Need to read more, analyze more data, run more tests... This is fine, as long as you actually do these things during your scheduled writing so you can get closer to putting words down on paper for yourself. Whether it's reading another article, running another statistical test, or reading through a journal's submission guidelines. As long as you're not using those things as excuses to avoid sitting down and working on or getting closer to what you need to be productive with your writing.

C. (This one is most obviously excuse-like:) Need a better desk, chair, computer, etc., in order to write. Need the 'right' notebook, or something like that. **Note: I haven't encountered this excuse myself, and while I can't say as much about the other ones, I haven't found myself talking about this, either. But in short, you don't need the latest and greatest technology in order to write.
As a side note: If you have an existing repetitive-strain or motion injury (I've dealt with one of these myself before), then do do your homework and figure out what ergonomics you need to change in order to be able to write comfortably, and without injury. I've written about my discussion with the on-campus ergonomics person here. 

D. You want to wait until you feel like writing. This one has to do with feeling inspired to write, and the idea that the best writing comes from those inspired emotions. However, this leads to inconsistent, erratic writing patterns that usually doesn't produce a lot of words, and if you want to finish your thesis, then you need to regularly be putting words to paper and doing something with them.

Lovely white harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) with tiny dragonflies in them!! Walking James Bay this May. 
Chapter three starts in on some motivational tools to get writing. And I've found some of them helpful myself.

The first is setting small, manageable project goals. You want to be able to measure your progress and keep moving forward in a way that you feel good about. Setting small milestones is a great way to get to passing big ones. You can also have an ongoing list of things that you want to write, which, when you have a regular writing schedule, become an ordered list of things to do. "A binge writer," Sylvia writes, "would feel anxious when confronted with this long list of writing projects, but you have a schedule." And you will get all your writing done in your scheduled writing time. :) (There's a lot more in the book about goal setting... and I'm really squishing this material down. Forgive me.)

Prioritizing your writing projects. Silvia suggests this order of things after his discussions with successful graduate students:
1. Projects with deadlines (eg. papers for classes, grant proposals, etc.)
2. Curricular writing (eg. a thesis!)
3. Professional publications (eg. an academic article or a white paper)
4. Other, miscellaneous writing (such as this blog!)

Then Silva spends a bit of time discussing monitoring your progress, or collecting data about yourself and your writing habits, behavioural patterns, and outputs. You set yourself a writing schedule for 8AM-10AM every morning of the Mon-Fri work week, but you are not a morning person, and you get discouraged because you sleep through your start times. Okay, so maybe mornings aren't your best time to write. But you can keep track of different times you set to write for yourself, and track that data! Then you can start to see when you meet your writing goals (keep them small and manageable), and then you keep up your momentum and motivation.

This chapter finishes with a quick note about writer's block. Basically, Silvia argues that academic writers can't get writer's block. "What are you trying to write?" he asks. "You're not crafting a deep narrative or composing metaphors that expose mysteries of the human heart. The subtlety of your analysis of variance will not move readers to tears, although the tediousness of it might (p. 45)."

He goes on to say: "Saying that you're not writing because of writer's block is merely saying that you can't write because you aren't writing." I think this is true enough. When I think of things that prevent me from writing (impostor syndrome, fear of failing, perfectionism...), these are things I allow to get in my way, but not because I don't know what to say. It's because I'm afraid that what I'll write won't be good enough. Though if I think about that, that's what revision is for!! :)

Meet Stewie: the tiny and oh-so-cute deep sea octopus print from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 Exhibit at the Royal BC Museum that I received as a lovely late-birthday present. <3
As a graduate student, human being, and world citizen, you do have lots of things to write and say and share, whether it's for yourself or for others. It's a lot less stressful sitting down to write out a draft of something, revise it, and figure out how best to express it than to get caught up in worrying about how you might say the things you want or need to, but not giving yourself the change or set up to be successful in doing so. (I write this as a reminder to myself, as well.) :)

The book has five more chapters, continuing on with how to form your own specific writing group, a discussion of style, one chapter each on how to write journal articles or books, and finishes with a short chapter on "The Good Things Still to Be Written", or reinforcing how scheduled writing will be rewarding, that you will spend more time writing, as opposed to wanting to write, that you will enjoy life more because you aren't stressing out about how much not writing stresses you, and that you can write as much or as little as you want. Cheers to that!

And, as the book mentions: "Let everyone else procrastinate, daydream, and complain-spend your time sitting down and moving your mittens."  Wishing you much happy, scheduled, regular, and mundane writing ahead!

Sylvia, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to academic writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.   

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Post 82: Thesis Images and Due Diligence re: Copyrights

This post is dedicated to one of those other niggly detail things that you need to keep track of as you get close to finishing your thesis: images and diagrams that you have borrowed or altered from other texts or sources, that appear (cited) in your thesis, how you do that, and how to find out if you need special permissions when using someone else's work.

Currently, the best resource to go talk to about this is Ms. Inba Kehoe, the Copyright Officer at UVic. During my discussion with her, it became clear that in order to follow through on due diligence, it's best to handle each image individually, because different sources and different formats may require handling their copyrights differently. Speaking with her in person is a great option to do this. If you're at the end of your degree, and are no longer living in Victoria or cannot make it to campus, it is possible for you to send your images or part of the article with your images ahead to her, so she can look into a few things, and the discussion can happen over email or otherwise online.

Beautiful BC Mountains -- flying back to my home province a little while ago.
Unlike citations for other written works, including the grey literature, books, or easiest of all, journal articles, I felt a little bit more concerned about reproducing an image from someone else's work. Is it as straightforward as listing the author and publication year [eg. (Lettrari, 2016)], as with written works? Do I need to obtain special permission? How do I go about that? Do I need to do it for a single image? For every image? Where is the cut-off line? Is there one?

I'm happy to say that Ms. Kehoe was very helpful in answering all of my questions, and I now know a lot more about having to look for the "Terms and Conditions" or otherwise Copyright information use for reproduction. For websites or online information, it's usually located at the top of bottom of the page; generally, I was told, federal government information is quite good about informing users of what they need to do to use their information.

Best of all, after this discussion, I no longer need to stress about figuring out how to cite the images for my thesis: in my case, I was interested in three images, and here's what I learned...

1. From a historical government technical report (dating to 1974), in which the authors had made their own graphics, depicting a basic schematic of the life cycle of the mountain pine beetle, and its relationship with the local weather conditions. Since the authors created the image themselves, and for that specific report, and because I am using less than 10% of the publication, I can simply cite the report directly. The 10% figure comes from the "Fair Dealing Copyright Guidelines" at UVic. I also found a useful schematic to look at here, too (Copyright Flowchart for Online Course Materials), which, although designed for a specific context, I also found relevant for thinking about my thesis materials. I do still recommend checking in with Ms. Kehoe if you have further questions or concerns.

Lovely red chestnut blossoms (Castanea sp.) lining Craigflower road this time of year!
2. The second image I want to use is a map of the spread of the mountain pine beetle during the first dozen years of the most recent outbreak. Produced by the Canadian Forest Service (Natural Resources Canada), it shows its rapid range expansion from British Columbia further north and east into the boreal forest -- and is, in other words, a key image for my work. Because I retrieved it from an online publication, we tracked down the site's Terms and Conditions, wherein it explained exactly how to work with the data on the website.

There were three conditions they gave if the work was used for public, non-commercial (which my thesis work falls under); the first two were very straightforward (1. If I don't alter the image, then I don't need to do anything else; 2. I need to give proper attribution), and the third was including a disclaimer with the citation for the image that it is published by the government of Canada, and that it has not been reproduced in affiliation with or with the endorsement of the Government of Canada. That is not onerous at all.

3. The third image I want to include in my thesis was one generated by my library's Summon—the portal that does all the searching through the databases and journals, etc., when I am looking for something, which in this case, was the rising incidence of journal articles published with "novel ecosystem*" in its keywords. I was trying to acknowledge in my literature review chapter that the concept was really being taken up since the publication of several key articles between 2006 and 2009 and onwards. Indeed, this year, the Ecological Society of America (ESA)'s annual conference theme is novel ecosystems.
Perfect end to a summer day: fresh strawberry rhubarb crisp in the evening! :)
I am very pleased to have made the appointment with Ms. Kehoe. It was a very informative and ultimately relieving meeting that made me feel more in charge of my work.

I also learned that I do NOT need to cite images or figures that I produce myself for my thesis. There is not need to 'self-cite.' This does not apply for work that is already published and exists elsewhere, which will need to be cited as per usual practices. But if this is a new diagram or image produced for your thesis or dissertation, you simply include the descriptive text that helps explain the thing, and off you go! It's standard to assume that it is the work of the author(s) if there is no citation. This also makes me realize why it's very important to cite properly; you could otherwise inadvertently be taking claim for someone else's work!

Onwards and upwards! The list of things to do to finish my thesis is starting to get smaller! :)

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Post 81: Whole Health Grad Student: Finances Part 2

I've been thinking about a couple of posts that I've wanted to write about thinking of your whole health when you're a grad student. Some of these thoughts have to do with health issues or stressors I've encountered along the way—a consistent reminder that my body isn't just two legs and a torso that walk my brain around on campus—and realizing that my norms of behaviours can dramatically influence my well being.

The first of these types of posts follows up on the financial post I wrote in the fall of 2014: "Post 32: Making Finances Easier: The Graduate Student Tuition Income Offset Plan," where I discussed that graduate students have the ability to arrange for their tuition to be paid in monthly instalments over a semester, instead of one giant lump sum at the beginning of the month. Depending on students' financial situations, it can be difficult to pay several thousand dollars all at once at the beginning of the semester. As well, funding is typically disbursed in monthly instalments, so it can be very useful to align your tuition payments with your monthly income patterns.

Super fun wall paper from a store down on Johnson Street.
Improving your financial literacy, understanding what your options for tuition payment are, and managing your finances well as a graduate student are all important things. Grad school is stressful enough without having to worry about additional stressors like having enough money to buy casual professional clothes, going out for a drink or two with new colleagues/friends/fellow grad students, or, something more fundamental such as food.

With that in mind, I'm going to suggest having a gander at my friend Mike Renaud's blog called Frugal in Victoria: it champions financial literacy, managing your finances well, offers suggestions for finding affordable by healthy options when eating out, and otherwise covers a variety of topics from tenants' insurance to credit cards, to investing, psychology, philosophy, transportation, hobbies, and more. It's a great blog, and I've learned a lot by keeping up with it. Take a look through the Posts by Topic to get a good sense of what the blog is about, and pick a couple posts that look interesting to you. The posts offer a good balance of general financial 'cents,' as well as tips specific to Victoria. Great to check out if you're going to school in town here, or at Royal Roads. :)

Some of the blog's recommendations, such as managing your monthly expenses, knowing where you spend, being aware of the cognitive biases that influence where you shop and what you buy when you do, have been very important for me.

Dew-decorated neighbourhood clover leaves! :)
As a graduate student with a limited income, it's also been very important to me to feel in charge of where my money's going, and have a good overview of what my expenses and savings are, so that I can set myself up for a bit of a break when I'm done this degree. Feeling like my finances are in order is one helpful way to avoid another stressor in this whole thesis experience, and I keep a monthly Finances document where I keep data on my purchases, my income, projects/donations, and hobbies that I spent money on. It's a good system, and I know that I pay my credit card off in full every month (and build my credit rating at the same time!), put a small payment towards my still remaining student loan (from undergrad), and save what I can when I'm able to.

I know that I keep an emergency fund, and a minimum of $1000 balance in my main checking and expense account. Buffers are really, really good for your financial health.

Cheers to being in good financial shape. Writing this post also brings to mind advice from a friend in undergrad: "Don't go to grad school if you have to go into debt to do it." Thanks to generous funding for my program, and work that I've maintained during and on the side of my degree, I haven't had to take on additional loans to complete this degree. I am so so grateful for this, even if working and TAing after my fellowship and grant ran out has extended the time it's taken to finish up. If your grant application doesn't go through, or your savings aren't enough to cover the possible expenses of the degree, or you don't see where you have other income coming in to help fund your way through, it might be a good idea to have another sit down stew with yourself about whether the program you've been offered a spot in is really worth it for you. At least, have a good conversation with yourself about what your financial as well as your educational goals in this experience are.
First salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) of the year! Thank you David Turpin courtyard!
As I've written about previously, it's also not guaranteed that your program will take you as long as advertised. Many things can come up, from program structure, interpersonal conflicts with supervisors, mismatches in project understandings, funding, health issues, or the impostor syndrome. In other words, sometimes life doesn't pan out the way you envision, and it's good to have as much on your side for fielding the unexpected as possible. That includes your finances.

If you are struggling to keep your finances in order, aren't sure where your money's going, and have panic attacks when you sign in to your online account because of how much (or little) money is remaining, send me a line and I'll email you the spreadsheet I use to keep track of my expenses. It works really well. Alternately, I know that Mike at Frugal In Victoria is also always open to an email, and he thinks about this a lot more than I do.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Post 80: Research Ethics

Finally this post! This one is a bit of a long one, but ethics are important, so it's worth it. The week following the presentation on research data management plans, Dr. Natalie Ban also organized a discussion-based workshop on research ethics with Human Resources Ethics Coordinator Ms. Eugenie Lam. Since several of the students in the new cohort of graduate students this year were beginning or in the middle of their ethics applications, it seemed like a good time to check in with Ms. Lam to ask any questions.

I went because I really enjoy thinking about research, and had to submit my own ethics application for my thesis research. I also attended this presentation with a few specific questions around technology and ethics: how best to gather and store confidential data using the internet? Are there any best practices around what technologies/programs we can or should use? Or should not use?

A fairy hill of fawn lilies at Thetis Lake! 
For a little bit of background: researchers in Canada (and likely in different countries, according to those countries' regulations) are bound by federal law to comply with a set of research ethics and standards. In Canada, the Tri-Council (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council or SSHRC, the Natural Science and Engineer Research Council or NSERC, and Canadian Institutes of Health Research, or CIHR) sets out regulations that govern research across the country, and each higher education institution needs to ensure that its researchers comply with those regulations. The policy can be found right here, actually.  It's the same policy that Ms. Lam and the Human Research Ethics Board look at when assessing applications.

As graduate students, we typically need to start thinking about, and then following through on applying for our ethics applications towards the end of our second semesters, or when coursework finishes up. I remember spending about 40 hours—an entire week—working on my ethics application. The hard work paid off in my case, however: I didn't have any revisions to make when my application was assessed, which I understand is unusual. But I was very diligent, made sure to include ALL of my recruitment materials, appendixes, and fill out every question in the form.  UVic's ethics application can be found here. There's also an annotated version that helps you understand what information each section of the form is asking for. So useful!

You want to take a look at the application form early into the semester, not only because you get a sense for the kind of information you need to think about, but also because the form is so detailed, it may actually help you with the design of your study.

More lovely quince! 
One word to the wise: the UVic Research Ethics Board is fantastic! The staff there are extremely helpful, and I would encourage all graduate students to think of them as allies. They are not there to police you and shut down your research. Instead, they will help you figure out how to do what you want to do, even if there are some changes that need to be made.

You should complete your ethics application before you gather any data, but it's a good idea to make some initial contact with some of the folks in the community you want to study (speaking from a qualitative/interview-based research perspective), whether to suss out your initial research questions, or just get a sense of whether your project is possible/worthwhile/interesting. An observation from Ms. Lam at the session was that if you want to conduct research with First Nations communities, you likely need to either have pre-existing connections to the community you want to study, or you will need to rely heavily on pre-existing relationships that your supervisor has established, otherwise it will be very difficult to quickly build the trust, rapport, and relationships you typically need to recruit participants for your study. There is often an expectation that work with specific communities will also result in co-benefits for the participants or community as well, so keep that in mind, too.

Once your application is approved, it will be valid for one year. I highly recommend filling out the simple form to extend the duration of your application even if you are already writing your thesis and all your data collection is complete; you never know what might come up, and it's much easier to fill out a 2 page form, than to go through a whole new application if you didn't renew but need to go collect more data or something. Don't do that to yourself.

Afternoon Thetis Lake reflection. 
If you make any substantive changes to your study design, or the questions that you submit (for example, I submitted tentative interview questions, and updated my application with an amendment when they'd become finalized), you can easily modify your application. Just make sure you do it. You can always send an inquiry email first, describing your planned changes, to help determine if you need to submit an amendment or not.

What I also recommend is talking to other students in cohorts before yours, or other students of your supervisor's, or your supervisor's own work. If they have done similar research to yours, see if you can get a copy of their ethics application. Ms. Lam stated that the Ethics Board isn't able to keep A+ ethics applications from other researchers (I asked, because I do really well with models), but also recommended talking to your supervisor. Seeing how someone else thinks through similar questions can be incredibly helpful, and I know helped my own thinking along. If you want a copy of my ethics application, please drop me a line. I'd be happy to send it along, as long as it's only for your individual use.

Did I get my questions answered during this presentation? Well, yes and no. Turns out that there don't seem to be any best practices for how to gather data using the internet, Skype, or Google Hangouts... the best that you can do is be transparent with your participants so they know that you're using Skype or whatever the technology is, in order to talk to them.

Carrying through on due diligence for your research ethics ensures that you know how you're recruiting your participants, what you'll say, what you're asking from them, how you're going to obtain that data, what you will do with that data afterwards, and how you'll store if past your project.

So while it will take a good bit of work to think through the ethics application form, it can also be fun, and by the end of it, you'll know how to engage with your participants in an ethical, respectful, and safe way.