Posts Tagged ‘Tips’

HowTo: write a philosophy paper!

December 4, 2008

Here are the guidelines; link via Stackoverflow.

HowTo: read scientific papers!

July 19, 2008

One of the very early lessons for me when I became a grad student (which also gave me quite a jolt at that time), is that the way you read the scientific papers is quite different from reading other technical documents — say, a text book or monograph.

Initially, I could not figure out how my advisor could read any paper so fast and get the gist so precise; and, sometimes make pronouncements about the soundness or silliness of some of the reported results based on my reports — without even looking at the paper; it looked like magic till I started paying close attention, and realised that his flipping the papers this way and that, and reading a few sentences here and there, and looking at this figure and that, is not all that random as it seemed; he looked at the title, then abstract, then conclusions, then the introduction, and the figures in between; he sometimes looked at some sentences and the references listed in them; occasionally, he read a paragraph or two from the core of the paper — formulation, results and discussion; and,  that was sufficient for him to make up his mind as to the worthiness of pursuing the paper; still, I do not remember a single case in which his judgement was off the mark.

Of course, there is a very large repository of information at the back of one’s mind on which one relies when reading a technical paper; that is what helps greatly in reaching conclusions fast; however, even with the availability of such information, it is the order which plays a crucial role in making the decisions faster.

Via Coturnix, I saw a blogpost at Blogrivet, which gives almost similar order for reading papers:

Scientific papers are broken into sections that are best read out of order. The headings for each section may vary from publication to publication, but the general concept is the same. Here I’ve identified each of those sections in the order that you should read them.

1. Abstract (…) 2. Charts and graphs (…) 3. Conclusion (…) 4. Introduction (…) 5. Discussion (…)

Bill, the author of the post (and the blog, Blogrivet) goes on to give detailed instructions for each section by taking an example paper from PLOS as a case study. A wonderful post! Have fun!

HowTo: grade fairly

May 22, 2008

Dr. Free-Ride gives some tips:

Thankfully for my students, I make serious efforts to apply a uniform level of harshness (or leniency) across the whole pool I’m grading. Here are some of my strategies:

  1. Invest some time in formulating good rubrics. To the extent I can, I want to give credit (including partial credit) uniformly. Working out which details are essential to a good answer, and how many points each of those details is worth — before I start looking at the actual responses — helps ensure that the first paper I grade and the last paper I grade get points awarded on the same basis.
  2. Re-evaluate rubric design after looking at a range of actual responses. Sometimes a question isn’t as clear as I thought it would be, or there’s a sensible way to answer that I didn’t anticipate, or there’s a common mistake that is common enough that it suggests some problem in my transmission of information during the term. Tentatively marking about 10% of the papers on the basis of my original rubric, then revisiting the rubric to adjust it before assigning real grades lets me be humane without being more humane to later papers and less humane with earlier papers.
  3. On exams, grade one item on all the papers (rather than one paper on all the items), moving on to grade the next item after getting through all the papers. Doing a single question in one sitting makes it more likely that there won’t be a “drift” in how I evaluate the answers against the grading standards.
  4. Shuffle the deck so different papers are at the top of the stack for different items. To the extent that I might drift toward being more harsh or more lenient at different points in the stack, I try to make sure each student is near the top of the stack for some items, near the bottom for others, and near the middle for the rest.
  5. Take frequent breaks. If I’m noticeably tired or grumpy, my grades will be suspect. Time to take a break and do something else, then come back refreshed. It certainly beats having to go back and regrade in remorse.
  6. Accept that students are surprising. It’s impossible to predict with certainty which students will wow you on a final exam and which will be having bad days. Coming to the grading table with no firm expectations one way or another makes it more likely that the marks will reflect their actual performance.

A nice post!

When to take photographs

May 5, 2008

Tyler Cowen gives some pointers in a short post which packs lots of punch:

If you take photos you will remember the event more vividly, if only because you have to stop and notice it. The fact that your memories will in part be “false” or constructed is besides the point; they’ll probably be false anyway. In other words, there’s no such thing as the “one-time in-person viewing,” it is all mediated viewing, one way or the other. Daniel Gilbert’s book on memory is the key source here.

Furthermore you don’t need the later viewing for the photo or video to be worthwhile. It’s all about organizing your memories in the form of narratives and that is what cameras help us do, if only by differentiating the flow of events into chunkier blocks of greater discreteness.

A photo that requires retakes might be more effective than a photo you get right the first time.

Cowen goes on to tell about his own photo taking habits and links to a post with pointers to take better photographs. Take a look!

On breaking things and making presentations

March 30, 2008

Doug at Nanoscale views has a couple of great posts.

The first is about an outreach programme in which Doug participated:

Yesterday I did an “Ask a scientist” event at the Children’s Museum of Houston, as part of their Nano Days events. It was fun. (…) The most fun part was when I invited the kids up to help me take apart a Wii-mote, while I explained that sometimes breaking things down is the best way to figure out how things work. The high point: an eight-year-old whispering “Awwwwsome!” to his friend after playing with the guts of the Wii-mote. (Note: opening up any Nintendo gear requires this kind of screwdriver….)

The second post about the quantization of the optical conductivity of graphene, and how one of the groups — forgive my using the eff word here — frame their results is a must-read:

Nair et al., in a preprint, arrive at essentially the same result, but present the data in a much more dramatic way that does a great job of emphasizing the consequences of the physics. Many people don’t have a good intuition for what optical conductivity means. Nearly everyone, though, has a decent sense of what optical adsorption means. These folks demonstrate that the quantized optical conductivity implies that the white light absorption of graphite is quantized (!) in units of the fine structure constant (!!), so that each additional graphene layer absorbs 2.3% of the light incident on it, even though each layer is just one atom thick. The figures in the paper, particularly the last one, do a great job of making this point.

The take-home message about presentation: having a compelling physics story to tell is good, and casting it in terms that a general audience can appreciate with some intuition is even better.

Take a look!

HowTo: disagree (on the web)

March 29, 2008

The web is turning writing into a conversation. Twenty years ago, writers wrote and readers read. The web lets readers respond, and increasingly they do—in comment threads, on forums, and in their own blog posts.Many who respond to something disagree with it. That’s to be expected. Agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing. And when you agree there’s less to say. You could expand on something the author said, but he has probably already explored the most interesting implications. When you disagree you’re entering territory he may not have explored.The result is there’s a lot more disagreeing going on, especially measured by the word. That doesn’t mean people are getting angrier. The structural change in the way we communicate is enough to account for it. But though it’s not anger that’s driving the increase in disagreement, there’s a danger that the increase in disagreement will make people angrier. Particularly online, where it’s easy to say things you’d never say face to face.

If we’re all going to be disagreeing more, we should be careful to do it well. What does it mean to disagree well?

Thus begins Paul Graham’s latest essay which attempts a disagreement hierarchy — beginning with Name calling, and ending with Refuting the central point — with Ad Hominem, Responding to tone, Contradiction, Counterargument, and Refutation in between, and in that order.

Graham, is of course careful to warn

One thing the disagreement hierarchy doesn’t give us is a way of picking a winner. DH levels merely describe the form of a statement, not whether it’s correct. A DH6 response could still be completely mistaken.

But while DH levels don’t set a lower bound on the convincingness of a reply, they do set an upper bound. A DH6 response might be unconvincing, but a DH2 or lower response is always unconvincing.

Of course, since we are on the topic, I should at least let you know that I am not in complete agreement with that last statement. For example, recently, PZ disagreed in the following fashion to this abominable post of Nisbet:

Fuck you very much, Matt. You know where you can stick your advice.

Now, this response, might be at DH0 level according to Graham’s classification or lower; however, I think (as also most of the commentors on this post for example), by dismissing Nisbet, and the fashion in which he dismissed, PZ is making a strong point: hence, the correct way of putting it would be

A DH6 response might be unconvincing, but a DH2 or lower response is always almost always unconvincing.

Have fun!

Two strands that post-docs have to attend to, to attain tenure track

February 24, 2008

Chris Rowan at Highly Allochthonous tells what they are:

I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to maximise your chances of getting on the tenure track, there’s two main strands you have to attend to. The first is pedigree – establishing a solid and consistent research output, most tangibly expressed by your publication record. Do your papers make significant contributions to the field? Has your output, and its quality, been maintained across different labs and projects, or might you just be riding on the coat-tails of a supervisor or collaborator?

The second strand is a bit more tricky: it’s about establishing your potential, your capability to move up from working within someone else’s research programme to devising – and funding – your own. By definition, if you’re a post-doc then you’re not a principal investigator on a project, but you still have to try to exhibit signs of intellectual growth in the years after your PhD, by pursuing new avenues of research as the opportunities present themselves, and being more involved when new projects are started up rather than jumping on board later as a hired gun.

A must-read post!

HowTo: write professional mails to your professors

February 21, 2008

Science Woman has some pointers — with a sample mail:

To: Science Woman (
Subject: Hey

can u tell me how to do number 4 on the problem set. i no u went over it in class but i have had a VERY LONG week lol tests ha ha ha and i lost my notes. pleeease help

Dear Stu,

The notes are available on the class website, but you can also solve #4 by … We’ll also be working more examples in class tomorrow. Please see me during office hours if you need more help.

Dr. Science

I am *so* sick of correspondence like that – and that’s from a typical student in my upper-level class. Let me vent a bit and enumerate its faults, and then I’ll propose a strategy for dealing with it and ask for your suggestions.

Take a look (and, don’t miss the comments, where, there lurk many a gem!)

Examples of some great presentations!

February 16, 2008

It is Bhrathiyar who said

உள்ளத்தில் உண்மையொளி உண்டாயின்
வாக்கினிலே ஒளியுண்டாகும்.

(If there be true light in the mind
There will be light in the speech)

That is something I am reminded of every time I watch a TED presentation.

Garr Reynolds at Presentation Zen chooses six of his favourite TED presentations from February 2006 (link via TED blog) and uses them to tell how-to and how-not-to make presentations:

Working within limitations, including time limitations, can be liberating in a sense. It narrows your options, pushes you to focus…and leads to more creative approaches. Any professional in their field can ramble on for an hour or two. But 20 minutes to tell your story, to give it your best shot? That takes creativity.

If you’re going to have ideas worth talking about — and your ideas are, right? — then you’ve got to be able to stand, deliver and make your case. All six videos below are excellent; I list the videos in order of the ones I enjoyed most.

Take a look!

HowTo: become a great scientist

February 15, 2008

Morgan C Giddings at PLoS Computational Biology gives seven tips:

  • Don’t worry about age, worry about being exposed to new ideas;
  • Tinker;
  • Take risks;
  • Enjoy your work!;
  • Learn to say “No!”;
  • Learn to enjoy the process of writing and presenting; and,
  • See the big picture and keep it in mind.

I particularly liked his “means matter” approach:

The astute reader may notice that most of the above rules are about process, rather than end result. This is to counter a phenomenon endemic to our culture: results count, and so advice is usually tailored to how to get those results in the quickest and most obvious manner. However, by attempting to short-circuit the thinking about process, in order to achieve the quickest result, often the end result is not a better one, and more importantly, leads to little long-term gratification.

Take a look!

Link via (who else?) Coturnix.