Things NOT to do on your CV
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on December 9, 2022 and translated into English in 2023.
A while ago, I saw a conversation between alumni and a faculty member from the Ohio State University on Twitter about creating CV (Curriculum Vitae, resume in academia). Their conversation, coupled with my observations of academic hiring processes and my experience in helping students revise their CVs, made me realize that the "common CV mistakes to avoid" were not knowledge everyone knew. So today, I'd like to share some insights.
Before sharing, I need to clarify that my summary of the "common CV mistakes to avoid" is based on my own understanding from my experience. I cannot guarantee the universality of these suggestions. Moreover, my advice may be more applicable to the culture of North American academia, and I have limited knowledge of its applicability to Europe, Asia, or other regions. Readers with experience outside North American academia are welcome to share your thoughts.
So, how important is CV?
Jobs, grants, awards, and many other opportunities in academia often require submitting a CV as the first piece of material.
I attended a workshop on "academic job market" in graduate school. The professor leading this workshop said that among all the materials submitted for job applications, CV might be the only (or one of the only two materials, with cover letter also being important) material that would be reviewed by almost every colleague in the hiring department. In addition, screening CVs is often the first step in academic hiring. If a CV is deemed "passable," the hiring committee may continue to review other materials.
Moreover, academics' professional trajectories are often made public. When we search for scholars online, their websites usually include their CVs. It can be said that CV is the main venue for people to understand a scholar’s past experiences and recent updates in academia.
In graduate school, I was advised to find some scholars whom I admired and see how they designed their CVs. Clear layout, well-organized content, and no typos are basic requirements, so I won't elaborate on that here.
A CV includes some basic sections, such as education, employment, publications, grants, awards, invited talks, conference presentations, teaching, and service. Generally, education and work experience are essential background information and are listed first. Then, among other content, publications are a crucial part of academia (especially in research-intensive universities). As a result, people often list their peer-reviewed publications immediately after the "employment" section. However, some people may highlight their most impressive achievements on the first page. For example, the ability to secure external grants is highly valued in academia. Thus, if someone has received numerous large grants, they may choose to list grants before publications. Similarly, if someone has won many prestigious awards, listing awards earlier in the CV can leave a strong impression.
In short, when arranging CV content, consider conventions and also think about the most valued skills and achievements for the opportunity you're seeking. What are your core competencies among all the selection criteria? Once you think through this question, you can organize your CV accordingly.
In today's article, I just want to offer one major piece of advice for creating a CV: Don't inflate your CV! This advice can be expanded upon in several ways.
1. For academic publications at different stages, it is essential to distinguish them clearly, preferably using separate sections.
This suggestion is actually the same as the one in the screenshot above: Don't list your manuscripts under review with your publications on your CV.
Generally, academic publications have several main stages:
Generally, item (a) will be a separate section as it is confirmed and one of the most crucial parts of a CV. Whether to include (b), (c), and (d) on your CV depends on the individual, career stage, or the reason for submitting the CV. Typically, when being on the job market, people list (b), (c), and (d) as we want to signal to future employers, "I have set up my publishing pipeline!" If you decide to list (b), (c), and (d), be sure to separate them from (a); otherwise, it may seem unprofessional or even an attempt to inflate your CV.
For item (d), some may wonder if listing more is better. That's not necessarily the case. I remember someone telling me not to list too many works in progress. Especially if you don't have many publications but list a lot of work in progress, people might question, "Does this person lack the ability to carry a project from beginning to end and produce published papers?" After all, what ultimately matters is not how many ongoing projects we have but how many papers we have successfully published. When we list work in progress, we could briefly describe the completion level (e.g., draft available upon request) to give people a more concrete impression of the project's potential.
Also, don't exaggerate the amount of work in progress. If you're not actively progressing a project or it has been stagnant for a long time, there seems no need to list it. I've heard of people emailing their co-authors (first author) to ask if they plan to continue the project and if so, what the next steps are; if not, they plan to remove the project from their CV's work in progress section.
2. For different types of academic publications, it is essential to distinguish them clearly, preferably using separate sections.
Whether we like it or not, different academic publications carry different weights. For example, peer-reviewed books and journal articles are generally well-recognized achievements in academia and carry the most weight when we are looking for a job or going up for tenure/promotion. Book chapters or book reviews have relatively less weight. Non-peer-reviewed publications or non-academic publications, such as writing short articles for magazines or newspapers (like the one I'm writing now, lol), are considered public engagement and are only supplementary outputs. When creating a CV, be sure to separate these non-academic publications from the "weighty" conventional academic achievements. If we list these items together, others may find us unprofessional, or worse, think we are deliberately inflating our CV.
I've heard a story about a PhD candidate at a prestigious university. At first glance of the CV, that person seemed very productive, with many single-authored articles as an ABD (All But Dissertation) student. Upon closer examination, only one article was peer-reviewed, while the others were non-academic short pieces written for organizations or media. A friend lamented, "I can't understand why that person did this. Didn't anyone in their department or their advisor review their CV or point out this issue to that person?"
People generally skim through CVs quickly, so when creating our CV, we should put ourselves in the readers' shoes and think about how to present our past achievements and future plans in the clearest and least misleading way possible. When preparing our CV, we should consider whether others can easily find the information they need. Since one of the main functions of a CV is to showcase our academic publications, this section should be listed separately instead of being mixed with unpublished or non-academic works.
3. Avoid mentioning the same information in multiple places in your CV.
I can’t remember where I saw this piece of advice. As for this suggestion, I'm still exploring: When would it be seen as a negative signal? When is it appropriate to not only place important information in the corresponding section but also directly link it with other content? For example, if someone's book or paper has won a prestigious award, they might list this information directly below the book or paper, but they will also include the award again in a separate Honors and Awards section. Most people don't seem to find this practice problematic.
However, I think the reasoning behind this suggestion is similar to what I shared earlier: If the same information occupies multiple lines in different places in a CV, it can easily give the impression of inflating one's achievements.
Lastly, I want to share a positive insight. Many of my friends, when facing bottlenecks or feeling they have not made progress, update their CVs and then realize they have accomplished so much without even recognizing it! I hope everyone has an impressive CV, and behind it is a joyful journey of learning and working.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "这些学术简历大忌，你中了吗？"
How to be a productive writer
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on August 1, 2017 and translated into English in 2022.
A while ago, I read Haruki Murakami’s My Profession is a Novelist. Despite differences in the type of writing we do for our careers (him as a novelist and I as an academic), his book profoundly resonated with me. With the inspiration that came from reading his book, I would like to share with everyone some writing insights.
The part I found most touching in My Profession is a Novelist was in Chapter 6 "Befriending Time— Writing a Novel." Despite the chapter focusing on how to write novels, I feel as though there is much to be learned and applied to writing academic articles as well.
When it comes to writing novels, there is a popular misconception that novels are just made-up stories and they are written when inspiration strikes the author. Many people blindly worship inspiration, falsely believing that inspiration is the main driver of an author’s words. But what actually goes into the writing process of authors like Haruki Murakami?
When writing a novel, I make myself write ten pages a day, each with about 400 words…Even if I feel like continuing writing, I will stop at ten pages. On the other hand, even if that day I don’t feel up to it, I will push myself to fill up ten pages worth of writing. I do this because in long-term projects, consistency makes the biggest difference. If you write only when it comes easily to you and stop when you feel like it, it is hard to maintain a consistent writing schedule over time. As such, I write every day as if I were signing in for attendance, never breaking my daily routine of writing ten pages.
Haruki Murakami’s words deeply touched me. Almost all of the productive scholars I know consistently write every day.
I’ve heard before that an assistant professor in a top American university had a blackboard in her office that she used to record how many words she wrote each day. The result of this was that not only was she a productive writer but every article she wrote ended up being published in top journals. She has since been recognized as a leading scholar in her field. Not surprisingly, she went from assistant professor to associate professor and was soon promoted to full professor.
Similarly, one friend of mine used an Excel sheet to track how many words she wrote each day. She felt most clear headed in the morning, so she would go to a cafe without wifi and write for three hours, completing about 600 words a day. I’ve seen her Excel sheet before. When there were two zeros in a row (meaning that she did not write for two days), she left a comment beside the “zeros” that said “cut my fingers.”
Another friend is also an extremely productive scholar. During her non-teaching days, she spends every morning writing. She does this because she believes that writing is a very draining task; by doing the hardest work in the morning, when her mind is the clearest, she produces better results. When I first knew about her daily routines, I felt admiration and also confusion because I often felt as though I had nothing to write. Therefore, I was curious how she was able to write so much every day. On the contrary, she felt as though she always had something to write about: starting a new paper, editing an existing paper, writing a response memo, beginning a new project, taking notes on articles related to her papers, and summarizing said articles (which would often be useful later on when she wrote her own papers). By now she has made it a habit to write every morning. So long as she doesn’t have teaching scheduled, she would turn on her laptop and instantly be in her “writing mode.” Thanks to the habit, writing every day has become a process that doesn’t require much thought. How can we write every day? Below, I share with you her tips and tricks that have inspired me a lot.
For me, I can only write in the morning. My brain literally stops working after 12pm, at least the part governing writing... I think one way that might help is to spend some time in the evening thinking about the paragraphs you're going to write the next day: the main point, the papers you're going to cite, the supportive evidence, examples, etc. Then the next morning, you just write them out. I know sometimes we just don't know what to write. In situations like those, I just write anything in my head, which may not make any sense at all, but can occasionally give you intuitions.
To put it simply, plan what you want to write tomorrow. Break up an entire paper into 20-30 paragraphs. Don’t let the thought of writing a 9000-word English paper scare you into inaction. Reframe your thinking to focus on smaller goals such as writing 2–4 paragraphs or 600 words. In addition, having an outline is especially useful.
Then how does one concentrate when it is time to work? I am lucky in that as soon as I begin working, I won’t be distracted by my phone or the Internet. The only website I really open when I’m working is Google Scholar. A colleague of mine uses the Pomodoro Technique to help her focus during her morning writing sessions. She installed a Pomodoro timer app on her laptop that counted down in 25-minute increments, during which she would write and then take a timed five-minute break in between. If this cycle of working for 25 minutes and then resting for 5 is repeated 7 times, that totals nearly 3 hours of concentrated work. This technique is great because it breaks down a large project into digestible work periods while also allowing us to balance rest and productivity.
Well, some people may say: “Despite hearing a lot of sensible advice, I still can’t implement it in my own life.” I used to also be paralyzed by inaction and caught up in thoughts of “should I write or should I not?” (of course, even now I still have such moments). But after hearing what my friends had to share, I decided to slowly try and incorporate those methods into my own workflow. For instance, in May of this year, I started keeping track of word count in my Word documents and taking note of the words I had written each day. At the same time, I divided my papers into different, smaller sections such as the introduction, literature review (1, 2, 3, etc.), data, sample, variables, methods, descriptive results, regression results, and discussion. Then, before each writing session I would brainstorm a general idea of what I wanted to write that day as well as how much I aimed to write. Now, when I revisit the document I had worked on in May, I can still see the word count records I made at the time, which indicated that I had written 6,561 words in 7 days. I can recall very clearly the sense of accomplishment I had while I was writing that paper and seeing the word count grow day by day.
Making a habit of writing every day is very difficult. It can sometimes take several years of consistent effort and self-discipline. It is also important to consider that everyone has different routines and lifestyles, so a process of trial and error is necessary in finding the most suitable way for you to develop a habit. The process of producing a paper is long and difficult, and waiting to write until the moment inspiration hits will not allow you to produce your best quality work. Here, I’d like to further share with everyone a passage from Haruki Murakami’s book My Profession is a Novelist:
At the end, it is my personal opinion, but novel writing is very tedious, slow work. Seldom will you find it exciting or glamorous. I spend entire days sitting alone in a room with back-and-forth thoughts of 'this isn’t right, but neither is that,' racking my brain in search for the right words to form sentences or improve on them even the slightest bit. During this, no one will acknowledge my effort spent putting words on a page or walk over to pat my shoulder in encouragement and say ‘good job.’ It's just myself, celebrating my small successes with short inner dialogues of ‘hm nice.’ After the book is published, maybe no one pays attention to that sentence I meticulously composed. Novel writing is at its core, work. It is extremely time-consuming and labor-intensive, and it can be under-appreciated and discouraging.
Then why do we still write?
In answering this question, I’d like to share a quote which was used as a concluding sentence in Gengwang Yan’s book Essays on History:
Writing is not only critical for publishing and contributing to society but it is also the most crucial and serious stage of research. If we don’t write, research efforts will remain incomplete and our contribution to the field is rudimentary…Writing is the epitome of comprehension, a demonstration of the most rigorous thinking, and the most serious final stage of scientific research. If it is not written, it cannot be regarded as a completed research project.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "'写写写'的心得分享: 将每天写作变成生活习惯." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Evalina Liu for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
How to edit and revise papers
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on March 4, 2018 and translated into English in 2022.
Last time, I wrote an article titled, “Insights on writing: Making writing into a daily habit”. In that article, I promised my readers that I would talk about editing and revising in a future article.
My academic idol Dr. Paula England recently tweeted something and I couldn’t agree more with what she said.
More and more I’m starting to realize that, like Dr. England, I enjoy “editing much more than writing first draft.” It’s so easy to become so caught up in the process of editing to the point where I become hooked. When I collaborate with someone for the first time, they sometimes take slight offense when I’ve edited so much of their writing. Once they get to know me, however, they come to learn that when I edit, I always restructure the article including its paragraphs, sentences, and word choice.
Today, I’m sharing my editing process partly because I was inspired by Haruki Murakami’s book “My Profession is a Novelist”. Writing a novel is quite unlike writing an academic paper, but Murakami’s process of revising his writing is so relatable to me. Next, I will draw upon excerpts from his original work and discuss my thoughts on editing academic papers.
The process of writing long novels isn’t like playing baseball such that completion marks the start of another game. If you ask me, the point at which a novel is finished signals the beginning of the most enjoyable part that’s worth your while.
Similar to Murakami, I usually take a break after completing the first draft of an article. If I have collaborators, I’ll send the draft to them. But after the initial draft, as Murakami describes, it’s “a rewrite from the very beginning, a process that is carried out on a fairly large scale”. During the first round of revision, I mainly look at whether the literature review is comprehensive and logical, and rearrange the paragraphs if needed. For example, in a recent article, my collaborator was responsible for writing the first portion of the literature review. Then when I read through it, I noticed that the deduction from the literature review to the research hypotheses was a little disjointed from our empirical analysis. I ended up cutting out a lot of what she had written. I also took arguments she had interspersed throughout the paper and combined them into one paragraph. As a result, the literature review, the formulation of research hypotheses, and the empirical analysis became more coherent.
Once this process is complete, I will set my work aside for another week and then enter the second round of revision. This time, likewise, I will make drastic changes and do a rewrite from the beginning, but with greater attention to detail. For instance, I might add some detailed descriptions of scenery and adjust the tone of conversations. I might check for inconsistencies with the plot development, and rewrite parts of the story that are difficult to understand at first reading to make the story unfold more naturally. This is not a major operation, but rather, an accumulation of minor procedures. After this stage, I will take a break before moving on to the next round of edits. This time around, it’s not so much an operation as it is an adjustment.
If we focus on the overall logic of the paper in the first round of revision, then the next stage is to revise the details of each sentence word by word. I’ll pay particular attention to the following things: Does each sentence have a transition word? Does each paragraph have an opening sentence? Does each section have a summary of reasonable length? Is there a bridging transition between each section? I’ll also check if I vary my vocabulary. For example, verbs (e.g. examine, investigate, assess, or evaluate), words that indicate a contrast (e.g. however, yet, but), or words that indicate causation (e.g. thus, therefore, hence). I like to alternate these terms and avoid having them appear in close proximity in my writing.
At this juncture, I'll take a long vacation. If possible, I’ll leave my work in the drawer for two weeks up to a month, forgetting that it even exists, or trying to forget about it...After carefully preserving the work like this, I'll begin to thoroughly modify the details again. A well-cared-for piece will leave a very different impression on me than it did before. Faults that were not discovered before come into sharp focus now. Whether there is depth to the work can also be discerned now. Just as my work was carefully preserved, so was my mind.
“Careful preservation” is another key component. After a few rounds of intense editing, I also like to take a break for a week or two, aiming to forget about the paper if I can. When I revisit the article, it feels as though I’m editing a completely new paper. Many of the faults that I missed in the first few rounds will now surface.
Sometimes, editing an article for long periods of time can be a strenuous task. I’ve noticed that oftentimes, I start off editing very attentively but I become more careless as I proceed. For this reason, I try to start from different sections every time I edit. This way, I can thoroughly review and revise each section clear-headedly and scrutinize every section meticulously. For example, in the first few rounds of revisions, I might focus on revising the front end (i.e. the introduction and literature review) and make slight edits to methodology and results, while temporarily disregarding the discussion section at the end of the paper. When I’m on my third round of revisions, I will carefully inspect the following: Is the equation in the methodology section accurate? Is the results section clear? Does the discussion tie back to the introduction and research findings?
Not only has the work now been carefully preserved, but it has also been rewritten to some degree. At this stage, the opinions of a third party are going to be of great importance...However, if you ask me whether I’d blindly accept any feedback, that would not be the case. After all, I had just finished writing a novel with painstaking effort, and though I had cooled down after taking a break, my head was still full of ardor for my work. As soon as I hear criticism, I will inevitably feel enraged and emotional, and perhaps even find myself entangled in fierce quarrels.
Murakami’s frame of mind deeply resonates with me. I still recall my reaction when I submitted articles in the past and received a letter of rejection along with comments from reviewers asking 'Why didn't you mention so and so?' or 'What does this mean?' I would complain to my advisor, 'I mentioned this in the article already. Why didn't the reviewer read it more carefully rather than saying I didn’t mention it in the first place?' My advisor would then tell me, 'Never blame the reviewer. If they make a critique, it means that we weren’t clear enough in our writing. We need to take those suggestions and make revisions and clarifications accordingly.' My advisor’s response has deeply inspired and impacted me. Later on, when I receive comments from reviewers, I would still occasionally feel dejected but I would only hold myself accountable for it; perhaps I could’ve been clearer in my writing, or I could’ve restructured the writing to enhance the comprehensibility. As an example, there was a past article where I did a lot of sensitivity analysis, but the piece was rejected upon the first submission. The reviewer said my analysis didn’t take into account many other important considerations, so it was unclear whether my results were robust. In reality, I had mentioned these additional analyses here and there when I introduced the variables and major findings. I didn’t blame the reviewer at all; instead, I singled out the important sensitivity analysis in the article and formed a new section dedicated to it. Sure enough, when I submitted my paper to another journal, reviewers didn’t make the same criticisms and they even commented that I did a “comprehensive, thoughtful analysis” and found my results very convincing.
In addition, when I bring in a third party, I will strategically choose the third party to review my draft. Everyone is extremely busy with their work and life in general, and it is time-consuming for others to read my entire article and make suggestions. Thus, I usually single out parts that I am most unsure about, and send them to my colleagues who have more expertise in the corresponding area. For instance, I once had a solo-authored paper where I wasn’t certain if I had sufficiently addressed the reviewer’s comments on theory and methods with my edits. Therefore, I sent the theory part of the article (roughly three pages of text) to a friend who specialized in theory. Meanwhile, I shared the equations and methodology sections with another friend who was well-versed in statistics. I explained my specific concerns to them and pointed out areas where I hoped they could focus more on. This way, they could read and make suggestions that were more targeted.
In other words, the most important thing is the act of editing itself. When the author is determined and believes 'I want to make this better,' sits down at their desk, and sets about revising their work, such an attitude is incredibly commendable.
I think if you have the mindset that “I want to make this better,” you may discover, like Murakami or Dr. Paula England, that editing is a fun process.
All good papers were accomplished through editing. I hope this article has been of some inspiration to you. Most importantly, I hope you can find joy in editing!
Haruki Murakami's excerpt is from chapter 6 of My Profession is a Novelist, “Befriending Time— Writing a Novel”.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "改论文改到嗨是一种什么样的体验." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Doris Li for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on January 27, 2016 and translated into English in 2022.
People say that writing a dissertation is a very dreadful, if not the most agonizing, stage. Let me share some of my thoughts on the process with you.
In the United States, many PhD candidates compile the papers they published during their PhD studies and make that their dissertation. Although I have published a few papers during my PhD studies, my dissertation is entirely new. Originally, I was planning to graduate in August, but my graduation date was advanced to May because I will be starting my new job earlier than I had anticipated. Under such great pressure, I am glad to find that I have not fallen behind. In fact, I am in an excellent mood every day despite the pressure, so I would like to share some useful tips on how I am able to do so. It is my hope that everyone can write their dissertations efficiently and happily!
1. Setting realistic goals for yourself is very important
I am very determined to graduate on time because of various life pressures. This, in combination with my personality, makes me avoid resorting to delaying my graduation as a backup plan. Knowing myself, I can only focus on one single thing at a time, so I’ve paused all of my other ongoing projects (including a ‘revise & resubmit’) to not overwhelm myself. I created larger goals (like finishing a certain part before a given month) as well as smaller goals (like writing 700-900 words per day). As long as I complete a daily goal, I can be satisfied with my progress even if I have wasted some time here and there. If we write dissertations while working on other projects in addition to balancing family demands, it’s easy to burn out mentally and physically.
2. Documenting progress helps you gain a sense of accomplishment and remain in high spirits
This point somewhat ties into my first point. Every day, I document my progress on Weibo (a China-based microblogging platform similar to Twitter). Doing so not only spreads positivity to those who see my posts but also holds myself accountable. I’ve even developed somewhat of an urge to post something every day as a way to report my progress to my followers. This gives me a sense of security and at the same time, it makes me feel more accomplished. Consequently, I can focus better while I work to complete my daily goals. Meanwhile, don't be too harsh on yourself. There is no need to criticize yourself for writing too slowly or not getting anything done; life already comes with enough pressure as it is, so treat yourself gently!
3. Just sit down and write; don’t judge your writing
It takes me hours to get into the flow when I write on my computer. I always take my time, fixing things here and there. When I plan out the day, I like to take into account this warm-up period. Another key point is to write shamelessly. Oftentimes when I am writing I’m slow as molasses and the quality of my writing is simply appalling. But after you have a draft, you can take your time to edit it, and the quality will only improve from then on. Sometimes, I’m also not the most objective person when it comes to judging my own writing. For example, I was really displeased with my second dissertation chapter (update: this chapter has been published in Journal of Marriage and Family) no matter how much I edited it, but when my mentor read it, he remarked, “I enjoyed reading the chapter. It is well thought out and well executed. The writing is good and easy to understand. Great job!” As the saying goes, a good dissertation is a done dissertation.
4. Find a source of entertainment
Don’t make your life revolve around your dissertation because then you’ll start to feel lifeless. For instance, I always dress up before heading to the office to work on my dissertation. I also have peers who envision themselves to be bestselling authors writing a novel; this is actually quite helpful for writing the introduction because in essence, we write papers to sell our ideas to the audience. Apart from that, I also have to teach while working on my dissertation. Even so, teaching is a relief for me because I have the opportunity to interact with others.
5. Rest, rest, rest!
Generally, I concentrate on my work for 4 to 5 hours, and spend another 2 to 3 hours on campus dealing with other tasks and doing some errands. When I get home in the evening, I stop working altogether and don’t even think about anything work-related, and I don’t feel guilty about it! This makes it so I wake up in a good mood every morning because I feel energized and ready to take on the day. In the late afternoon, I’m still in a good mood because by then I will have ended a day of hard work, and I can look forward to the evening which is my self-care time. Also, I try to get at least 8 or 9 hours of sleep each day. If I sleep later, I would also accordingly wake up later the next day. This way, I can maintain mental clarity in the mornings and head to work fully recharged. I don’t do intense physical activities like running or aerobics, but I do make sure I go on a walk for 30 to 60 minutes on every work day. While I walk, I’ll listen to music, people watch, or space out.
These are some tips I have summed up as of now. Hopefully, you’ll find them useful. Once I finish defending my dissertation, I’ll revisit these points and see if I have any new insights to add. You’re also welcome to add to the list. Be open-minded to trying new things and find what works best for you. At the end of the day, finding strategies to work efficiently is also a part of figuring out who we are!
The original article in Chinese is "如何高效、快乐地写博士论文？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Doris Li for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on October 27, 2020 and translated into English in 2022.
I did a lot of immature things in graduate school. Now looking back on it, I would like to share the lessons regarding how to best work with professors. These reflections are all based on my personal experiences and those of my friends. Please feel free to share your thoughts as well.
1. Consulting with advisor
If you already have a scholarship or hold a Research/Teaching Assistant position but you want to look for other “side jobs” unrelated to your research, it is best to discuss it with your advisor first. I recommend this because it is not easy for students to manage time with too much on their plate. Biting off more than you can chew tends to delay your graduation or current research. By talking to your advisor about the things you want to pursue, they can offer you advice on the best course of action to take.
To give an example, when I was pursuing my PhD, a professor in the business school was looking for assistance with data analysis. I was quite confident in my abilities to do this type of work and applied for the position without consulting with my advisor. He eventually found out my side job because the business school required my department head’s signature to process a payment and my advisor just so happened to be the department head in charge of approving my pay. My only choice after that was to explain myself to him. My advisor asked me whether this job was temporary or long-term, and he was understanding and did approve my salary.
I was fortunate that the RA job only required one-time support on data analysis, so I was able to return my focus to research without falling too behind. From this, I learned that I had been too ambitious with my goals. Next time, if I were to come across any potential “opportunities,” I should first discuss them with my advisor and then make a decision based on my academic workload and future career plans.
2. Writing down your research idea
It is great to have research ideas, but we shouldn’t constantly change our minds. When advisors offer constructive criticism for a research proposal, we should take time to think about how we can incorporate their suggestions to improve the research design as opposed to changing our research question the moment a flaw is pointed out. If it is possible to improve the proposal, then how should that be done? What we should avoid doing is changing our research topic at the first sight of criticism.
When I was choosing my dissertation topic, I had meetings with my advisor every week and I reported my progress to him. We soon fell into a cycle where I would propose my idea, he would point out some questions for me to think about, and I would come back the following week with a brand new idea. When this had gone on long enough, my advisor said something along the lines of:
“You come to see me each week and propose a research topic. I tell you what challenges you may face if you decide to pursue this topic. I raise questions about your proposed topic, but they aren’t meant to discourage you from moving forward with the topic because it’s no good; rather, I intend to help you improve your research idea. But if every time I raise questions, you change to an entirely new topic; then there is no point in meeting every week because it is a waste of our time. I suggest you write down your ideas and address the following points in a few paragraphs: What is my research question? Why is this topic worth investigating? What data may be appropriate? What challenges may I face? Writing these down can help you organize your thoughts.”
After hearing his words, I felt quite ashamed. I had been changing my dissertation topic so frequently that even though we met often to discuss my work, I was making no progress on identifying a good research question. After our conversation on that day, I organized my research idea into some paragraphs and followed my advisor’s advice to sort out my idea. I soon found my dissertation topic.
3. Preparing questions before meetings
Before meeting with your advisor, prepare questions.
When I was in grad school, I set up weekly meetings with my advisor, to keep myself accountable and prevent myself from procrastinating. One time, when I walked into my advisor's office and he asked me, “What would you like to discuss this week?” I then realized that I had nothing new to discuss with him. He told me with a smile, “Next time if you have nothing to discuss with me, just tell my secretary or send me an email to cancel our meeting. Don’t feel bad; I have plenty of other things to do.”
Through that experience, I have learned that students need to have a proactive attitude when meeting with their advisor. In particular, if students meet with their advisor to discuss their own research, they cannot assume that their advisor knows what progress they have made because advisors have no such obligations. To have productive discussions, students need to regularly keep track of the problems they run into and go into meetings with questions prepared beforehand.
4. Informing professors in advance
Professors have busy schedules so you should inform them in advance if you need help.
A reliable friend of mine told me that she was once immature when interacting with her advisor. Her advisor responded very quickly to emails and students’ needs. However, one time she contacted her advisor so last minute, so her advisor made it clear to her, “I know I reply quickly to emails but not that quickly. Please tell me ahead of time if you need my support.”
A friend of mine who works at a university in China told me stories of students who would frantically ask professors for signatures or even recommendation letters on a weekend and require them by Monday. Students should not treat their professors as 24/7 customer service workers. Professors do not owe students all their time, so please be respectful and considerate when making requests.
There are some things to be mindful of if you wish to ask for recommendation letters. Outside of seeking permission, I have colleagues who require their students to share all their related documents at least one month before the deadline. Overall, when it comes to writing recommendation letters, every professor has different requirements and preferences. Therefore, for students, the best course of action is to do your part ahead of time and communicate with professors sooner rather than later.
To give an example, when I was on the job market, I was applying for many jobs, so I sorted those jobs by the due date for recommendation letters. For schools with October due dates, I would send my professors a list of schools in mid-September and include their associated links for submissions of recommendation letters. If a deadline was around the corner but in the application system, I had not yet seen recommendation letters submitted, I would send a follow-up email to remind the professor(s).
When I was a student, I was extremely grateful for the support that my professors provided to me. To thank them, I figured the best thing I could do was to make it easier for them to support me.
5. Taking feedback seriously
When you receive revision suggestions from your advisor, you should take time to reflect and make corresponding changes. Furthermore, you should strive to not make the same mistakes.
A friend once told me that when she was supervising MA students’ theses, she would make many annotated suggestions on their drafts. However, when students turned in the next version of their drafts, there were no tracked changes, so she did not know what changes were made to the papers. When she spent time comparing the previous version to the current one, she found out that the issues she had raised were still present. My friend said, “I had no idea if the student didn’t make the changes because they disagreed with my comments or if they agreed but just didn’t know how to address them. Or could it be that they were simply unwilling to take any suggestions at all?”
In graduate school, when I was quite doubtful of my academic career, one professor said to me, “I truly believe you have potential because you take criticisms well and you know how to improve your work based on the criticisms.” She found that some students were unwilling to listen to critiques, and others listened but couldn’t seem to address the critiques to improve their paper. Thus, taking criticism well and knowing how to revise our paper based on the criticism are extremely valuable research skills.
These are all the examples I could think of from the top of my head. If you have other opinions or thoughts, please feel free to share them.
Last, I would like to say that if you (especially those still in school) feel that you have done any of the immature things mentioned in the article, don’t feel as if it is the end of the world. None of this is meant to say if these mistakes are made, then our relationship with our advisor is ruined. All professors want the best for their students. If we can learn from these experiences, reflect, improve, and grow, then that is what makes the biggest difference.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "和教授共事，哪些雷区不要踩？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Evalina Liu for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on November 13, 2020 and translated into English in 2022.
This week, a collaborator and I completed a minor “revise & resubmit” in two days; in the last two weeks, another collaborator and I wrote in sprints and finished a high-quality literature review of over 5,000 words. While working on these research projects, I felt sincerely grateful for all my awesome collaborators. Therefore, I couldn't help but write an article to share what I’ve learned from them.
1. Be reliable
I've tried writing sprints this year with several collaborators, and it's pretty cool! Generally speaking, after I finish a draft, I send it to my collaborator, and my collaborator will edit it as soon as possible, and send it back to me, and we repeat the process a couple of times. I found that through this collaborative approach, we were able to complete both the first draft and the final polished draft within a short time.
Sprint writing has a lot of benefits. For example, when working on a project, if my collaborators and I put it on hold for a while, it always takes a while to recall what we did last time and then plan what to do next. However, sprint writing is like running a relay in which collaborators pass the baton to each other and let the ideas flow logically. As a result, we not only efficiently write up an article but also substantially improve the article with multiple rounds of back-and-forth revisions.
If we have to take time off to deal with personal circumstances, such as recovering from sickness or taking care of children, my collaborators and I usually communicate in advance to make sure that both parties are on the same page. For example, they may tell me “I can only make changes up till this part today. I will leave the rest to you, and come back tomorrow to follow up on your edits.” In another instance, I was not productive in a particular week, so my collaborator did her part first and sent it over. The next week, she had other things to do, so she didn’t work on our project. Instead, I revised what she wrote, added the parts I was responsible for writing, and then sent it back to her. Later, she said to me, "How amazing it is to have a coauthor who you can really depend on!! Thanks for pushing the paper forward." Of course, this kind of dependence is not one person's unilateral effort, but everyone's concerted endeavors can develop a synergy.
Sometimes I'm afraid that I would procrastinate and delay things, so I set a deadline for myself. For example, instead of saying "I'll reply to you as soon as possible," I would say, "I'll look at it and reply before Wednesday." I do so because I find that saying "as soon as possible" doesn’t mean the project is on my to-do list and it may end up being put on hold for various reasons. However, if I promise myself a deadline and keep myself accountable by telling my collaborators about my plans, I can make sure that I'm responsible for the project. I also have collaborators who clearly explain their arrangements and plans. For instance, they let me know that they are preoccupied, so they may not be able to participate in a project, and they will join if other opportunities arise in the future.
In short, reliable collaborators inspire us to become more trustworthy and committed members of a research team 😁
2. Be intellectually stimulating
I often ask questions to spark discussions with collaborators, and I am very grateful for their constructive suggestions. Collaboration, in many cases, is being able to discuss with someone when you get stuck or feel uncertain about something. After all, two heads are better than one.
In emails and Word documents, I raise questions if I am unsure about certain things. I appreciate how genuine and sincere my collaborators are in responding to my questions. They share their ideas or potential solutions, and they are usually quick and thoughtful. I always feel more motivated and driven after reading comments and suggestions from my collaborators. Their replies also help me think more deeply to gain a better understanding of our projects. I often feel cheerful because I have acquired new skills from these projects.
In collaborative research projects, intellectually challenging and stimulating dialogues are one of the most enjoyable aspects of collaboration. It is not uncommon that my collaborators disagree with me and challenge me. For instance, they point out that:
Here is what I feel most grateful for: when collaborators express their disagreement, they usually come up with a plan that they think is feasible, and then we would consider it and discuss the next steps together. This kind of back-and-forth questioning and discussion makes research better.
3. Be organized
My collaborators are all very well-organized persons, and I have learned a lot from them. In email exchanges, many of my collaborators give me an outline of what they have done and also tell me what needs to be done next. They are my role models and motivate me to be more organized.
Once, a collaborator sent me a structured email that I still remember to this day (see the image below). When I saw it, I thought, "I need to learn from her!" She laid out very concisely what she did based on our discussion, then pointed out what I needed to do and what I should pay attention to, and also specified what we may need to do together in the next stage. Last, she ended the email with affirmation - "Go, team!" and "Thanks!". After I read the email, I was influenced by her optimism and positive energy.
4. Establishing good authorship practices
Co-first authorship has become increasingly popular in academia, but how to order author names amongst those who contribute equally is a rather awkward topic. While the default practice is normally to list co-first authors alphabetically by last name, it might come off as a little bit unfair to those with last names late in the alphabet. Academics with last names further back in the alphabetical order may find it difficult to voice out their potential concerns about always being the last person on the author list. The situation can be even trickier if there are differences in rank or seniority between the collaborators. If an author with a later alphabet surname is of lower rank or seniority, the author may not know how to voice out their concern without being viewed as aggressive; by contrast, if it is the party of higher rank or seniority who proposes to change the order of names, it might come across as abusing their power. In these situations, it may be a good idea if the party with the first alphabetical surname takes the initiative to propose some solutions that they could accept.
One time, a collaborator took the initiative to tell me, “Yue, this time your name should be listed before mine”. Although his last name technically goes before mine, he said that his name was listed first last time when we worked together, so this time mine should be listed first. I was really moved by his consideration and thoughtfulness 😭
I have seen other mutually agreed-upon practices. If two or more people are long-term collaborators and are co-first authors on multiple papers, it may be reasonable to rotate the order of the names. For example, this time, A is listed first, and next time, B is listed first, even when all the articles indicate that the authors contribute equally. I also know of collaborators who flip a coin to decide whose name appears first on the paper.
Many long-term collaborators put themselves in each other’s shoes, and treat each other as partners and friends. We strive to be fair, friendly, and ethical in handling situations that arise in collaboration.
Well, that's it for today's sharing. Please feel free to leave a comment for discussion😊 I wish you all can connect with trustworthy and reliable collaborators!
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "我从我的合作者身上学到的美好品质." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Ally Cheng for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on June 5, 2019 and translated into English in 2022.
I have always wanted to write an article on collaboration. I often joke with my friends in academia that finding a good collaborator is not in any way easier than finding a life partner. If we are lucky enough to meet good collaborators, we should never let them go.
Last month when I was attending a conference in the US, a fellow in academia pointed out to me, “you seem to collaborate a lot in your papers”. Indeed, I love collaborating with others. In “how to manage your time, emotion, and research progress as pre-tenure faculty members?,” I mentioned that writing sole-authored papers was lonely (at least this is how I felt). I had no one to talk to for advice with regards to the details of the project. No one could motivate or encourage me to actively continue my research. On the contrary, with a collaborator, we can keep each other accountable and discuss any possible questions, which in turn makes us feel much less isolated.
I have grown a lot from collaborating with other people and learned to become a better researcher and better person in general. l I would love to share my experience with all of you. Specifically, I am highlighting peer collaboration in my examples below. On the flip side, if it were a collaboration between a junior researcher and a more experienced, senior scholar, it would look more like a mentor-mentee relationship and the interactional dynamic might be different.
Providing constructive feedback
At the very start of my career, one of my collaborators said something that impacted me a lot. As the first author of our paper, she wrote the first draft. I then reviewed it and put down questions that I had for her writing. Later, when she was giving me feedback, she told me being a collaborator is more than raising questions and finding flaws. “What I wrote on the paper”, she said, “is undoubtedly the best of what I could think of at the moment. If you think there are limitations, could you please also provide potential solutions?” Until now, her words still stick with me and it’s something I live by. Indeed, good collaborators work together to identify problems and figure out solutions; if someone is only raising questions without following up on how to improve the paper, they would be more like a reviewer.
From then on, whenever I am collaborating with someone and editing their work, I always make sure that I point out the imperfections, reasonings, and possible resolution to the problem, which could help us further discuss. As I understand how much effort it takes to edit and give doable advice to academic work, I make sure that I take pieces of advice seriously and respectfully. To be a good collaborator, we cannot be reluctant to consider others’ opinions and suggestions. If we only focus on our ideas and think that they are the best, there is no point in having collaborators.
Establishing a clear division of labor
Establishing a clear division of labor is especially important in academia. Authors’ contribution to a paper and the authorship are crucial to building the scholarly identity and affect tenure and promotion.
For example, one of my long-term collaborators and I have a very clear division of labor. The first author is usually responsible for analyzing data, writing the first draft of the paper, and leading revisions. If the analysis has to use multiple datasets or models and the second author is familiar with a certain dataset or model involved, the second author would be responsible for those parts of the analysis as well. If the literature in a certain part of the paper is in the field of the second author, the second author would write that too. Certainly, the idea for the paper, the conceptualization of the analysis, and the direction of the revisions often are the product of discussions between both authors. Every time before we start a new project, we would make sure to reach a consensus on who is going to be the lead author for the project, each person's responsibilities, and the general timeline. We would then update each other regularly on the research progress. We will try to have an agreement regarding when we could finish our parts and by what time we would send it over to the other person.
In my opinion, to maintain a long-term collaboration relationship, we need to reach a consensus about how to allocate authorship fairly (i.e., in proportion to contribution). Reaching a well-balanced division of labor between collaborators requires communication and similar moral values.
A one-time experience of collaborating with a friend made me recognize the importance of respect in collaborations. When reading through her first draft, I upset her by sending her emails like text messages (without addressing her nor signing off my name). To make it worse, I did not send all of my opinions in one email, but I sent an email whenever I thought of something as I was looking through the draft. My collaborator later sent me an email confronting me and saying that what I did made her uncomfortable. We were collaborators, but not in an advisor-advisee relationship. The way I sent her emails and told her that we had to edit here and there put on an accusatory tone and made her feel disrespected.
When I was reflecting on the matter, I recognized what I did was wrong. I apologized to my collaborator sincerely and explained that I didn’t mean to disrespect her. But I should have done a better job of communicating by reading through the whole work, organizing my thoughts, and sending her my feedback. She then told me that she chose to confront me because she wanted me to know and understand her feelings and she did not want this experience to harm our friendship.
This incident has had a substantial impact on me. After this, whenever I work with people, I pay more attention to my manner: Is there an accusatory tone in my emails? Am I expressing appreciation for the work of my collaborators? Am I sending too many emails at once that would overwhelm people? These small details may also significantly affect the relationship between collaborators.
Lifting each other up
Cheering for each other is so crucial. Once, a paper that my collaborator and I put together was desk rejected three times. As the first author, I doubted myself so badly. But my collaborator affirmed me and told me: "I think our article is very good, and it will be accepted." The assurance from my collaborator helped and encouraged me, and later, the article was indeed accepted by a good journal. Looking back, after three desk rejections, if my collaborator were to say "I don't like this article, and maybe we should give up," I might not be able to hold on and would’ve given up.
In my opinion, lifting each other up between collaborators is more than encouraging each other after our project receives rejections. It also means that we have a positive evaluation of each other and feel optimistic about the research topic and progress. For example, many of my collaborators and I act as cheerleaders for each other. We would sincerely say: "This idea is great! We will put it together!" "Wow, you have edited it so well! The article is now so much better!" "Come on, we're almost done!"
The research process is already long and winding. If collaborators are pessimistic, discouraging, or feeling hopeless about the research, the whole process may be overwhelmingly difficult.
Cultivating long-term collaboration
Some people may easily find new collaborators. Depending on the needs of a research project, it would be great if new collaborators with complementary expertise could always be found. But if you are fortunate enough to find a collaborator who is compatible with your intellectual capability, work style, research interest, and professional ethics, you must cherish it; if two of you can collaborate for a long time, it is one of the best things we could ask for.
Collaboration does not just happen. Some people say that you have to put in work to maintain an intimate relationship, and I think the same holds for collaborative partnerships too. My long-term collaborators and I will try to ensure that there are always ongoing and active projects. For instance, we will start the brainstorming process when a project is about to end, to see what we can do next. Sometimes we would even create an "idea bucket" which is filled with exciting new ideas for our future projects, and we discuss which one we should work on first.
These are my sharing for now, and I welcome you to share your experience and thoughts.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "找靠谱的合作者比找对象还难：How to collaborate?." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Ally Cheng for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on February 6, 2016 and translated into English in 2021.
I remember when I first entered grad school, I was talking to a mentor about research ideas. Whenever I brought up an idea, she would immediately recommend a relevant piece of literature for me to read. At one point, I was so impressed that I couldn't help but remark, “You’re like a walking encyclopedia! No matter what research topic I mention, you can always suggest a related article!” My mentor smiled and said, “Well that’s because I’ve been in academia for 20 years. When you reach this point of your academic career, there’s no doubt that you'll be even better than me.”
Back then, I thought reaching a point like my mentor was far beyond me. But just a few months ago, I had two friends reach out to me to discuss their future research ideas, and they both said to me, "You're practically a walking encyclopedia. I could ask you anything, and you’d immediately recommend an article related to my idea." At that moment, I was reminded of myself when I just entered grad school and I realized that, since then, I had come a long way. Needless to say, I still have a long way to go compared to my mentor, but I am willing to allow myself more time to improve. So, if you feel like a layman right now, it is no big deal; we have all been there before. As long as you continue to grind toward your goal, you will eventually get there.
Alright, let’s dive into today’s topic. I would like to share with you three things I have learned:
1. How does one become a “walking research database”?
1A. Read extensively. I am not sure about the sciences or humanities, but in social sciences, reading extensively is extremely important. My advisor once suggested that I should read the abstract of every new article from the best journals in our field (such as American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, and Demography). Even if those papers do not belong to our particular area of research, it helps us get a sense of what people in the discipline are studying at the moment.
So, how can you read extensively?
1B. Turn it into a habit, just like how you check Facebook, Newsfeed, or Twitter every day. My advantage is that I am very interested in my research field, so reading papers on marriage and family feels almost like reading a gossip magazine. For me, reading the abstract, or even the full text, does not feel like a chore in any way. To tell the truth, I find reading papers in English much more enjoyable than reading English novels.
My advisor reads the New York Times every day to keep up with current events. Many New York Times articles will cite the latest literature, so if they are related to our research areas, we can also find the original journal articles to read. Several of the papers cited in my dissertation were mentioned in the New York Times articles that my advisor had forwarded to me.
1C. I am subscribed to various academic journals that interest me or are relevant to my research (use Journal of Marriage and Family as an example, "Get content alerts" as shown in the image below).
Every time new articles are released, I receive an email notification. For general interest journals that are not closely related to my research areas, I scan the title of each paper and read it in full if I am interested. For journals that are directly related to my research areas (such as Journal of Marriage and Family), I will read the abstract of every article. The goal of this is to give my brain at least a vague impression of the research that is out there. If I ever need a particular piece of literature, that vague memory of the paper will resurface. I will then probably know which keywords to search for or which journals are more likely to have relevant literature.
I also have many friends who follow and set up alerts for certain scholars or journal articles on Google Scholar. If those scholars publish a new article or if an article they follow is cited, they will automatically receive email notifications. If you've already published a paper, you can also set up a Google Scholar alert for it, and you will receive alerts about other published works that cite your paper.
2. If you have come up with a research question, how can you quickly find relevant literature?
To answer that question, Google Scholar is a key resource.
2A. I typically search for relevant keywords in Google Scholar to find relevant articles. After I have read a relevant paper, I look at the references in that paper and read the associated literature. My mentor told me that this is called “searching backward.” That is, finding relevant literature as well as older or more classic literature.
In addition, it is helpful to “search forward.” I will use my paper as an example (please excuse my lack of humility in doing so). On Google Scholar, each paper has a “cited by” in the lower left corner (see image below). If you click on “cited by,” you will see all of the new literature that has cited the work originally retrieved in your search. This way, you can get an idea of what progress has been made in academia since that paper was published.
2B. In sociology, we have a journal called Annual Review of Sociology. It's full of literature reviews written by experts on specific topics. I usually use the “Advanced search” function on Google Scholar to directly check whether this journal has published a literature review relevant to my research topic (see image below). If there is, I will most definitely read it, and then thoroughly look over its references.
In addition, Journal of Marriage and Family, for example, will have a decade review every ten years. Typically, family scholars will read all of the papers in this issue (e.g., The Decade in Review published in 2020). If you're new to a research area, you can start by looking at review-type articles from some of the top journals to quickly locate relevant literature.
2C. Another method I often use is to find famous scholars in the field who have published relevant works to my research question. I then read their CV or Google Scholar profile to identify relevant papers that I should read. For several of my papers, my mentor advised me to check out so-and-so’s work because they were experts in that area of research.
2D. Another strategy is to use analogies. For example, when I write a paper on China, I will look at how the same research question is studied in the US context. What theories have been used? What methodology?
In another example, I did a project on occupational segregation (update: this project led to a paper published in Social Science & Medicine), but I noticed that there was very little research on this topic. By comparison, there were a lot of studies on residential segregation in the US. Thus, I looked at those papers to see what theories the authors used to develop their hypotheses. I asked myself, “Can it be applied to occupational segregation?” (update: this exercise led me and my collaborator to write Section 2.1 of the paper "Segregation and Health: the missing links of occupation and immigrant status".) Of course, if there's not much literature on a research question, you have to ask yourself: is there something wrong with the question itself? To ensure the feasibility of your research question, it’s good to discuss with your advisor or more experienced researchers.
3. How can you read quickly and use relevant literature effectively?
3A. First of all, it is quite normal to take a long time reading papers when you are new to a research area. Be patient. You need to take time and settle in when you conduct research. As you become more familiar with a research area, you will start to read papers faster. For instance, all of the scholars studying a particular topic might apply the same theories. In this case, just give the basic introduction of the theory a quick skim, then skip it. In addition, the scholars may be using similar data, so just skim over the introduction of the data, and move on. Scholars of the same field may also use the same methods; if there is no innovation in terms of the method, then again, skim over it to find out what the method is, and move on. When you are reading your first introductory literature on a topic, you will most likely spend quite a bit of time reading it. As you become increasingly familiar with the body of literature, you can finish skimming a paper on that topic within a pretty short amount of time.
3B. You have to be clear about what your goal is when reading a paper. When I was writing my MA thesis, the topic I was studying had been examined in the US context, but my research was going to be focused on China. Thus, I read all of the papers that were examining the same issues in different societies (such as the US, Korea, and Spain). My purpose, in this case, was to see how the authors of these papers framed their unique contexts. In other words, what data they used didn’t matter to me, and every paper applied the same methodologies or major theories, so I simply skimmed these parts. With this method, it took me half an hour at most to read an article.
When I was writing my dissertation, I also used this strategy. After deciding on the method I would use, I found the best journal in my research area and searched up that method as a keyword to find all the studies in the last 10 years that applied the method. I skipped through the theories they applied and their conclusions, because it was irrelevant for my research purposes. After briefly skimming through the introduction to get an idea of their research questions, I skipped straight to their method sections and then looked at how they explained the results. Moreover, in the process of doing so, I learned about new developments in this method (update: this chapter of dissertation using multilevel dyad models has been published in Journal of Marriage and Family), which were not mentioned in classical statistics textbooks. Therefore, instead of using the basic method, I ended up using an advanced version of it, inspired by an article I read (despite the article’s research question being unrelated to mine). This is also a good time for you to think about your audience. For example, when I write a paper, my goal essentially is to submit my paper to the journal where I search for literature, so I look for relevant literature from that journal. In general, when you read literature, make sure to keep your paper in mind. Always ask yourself: How can this previous literature serve my research?
Similarly, there are certain papers where I only read the theory portion. For others, I only look at how they present the data they use. For some papers, I even choose to only read the introduction, because I want to know how scholars sell their research to quickly convince readers, “My research is really important!” If you are only reading the introduction part of a paper, the paper doesn’t necessarily need to be related to your research questions; the key is to read the papers that you like or are authored by your favorite scholars. Through reading these papers, you get to see how scholars frame and sell their research questions, which I think is an art in and of itself and requires conscious learning. There are a couple of scholars whom I really like, and I read every single one of their articles multiple times. As I read, I continuously take notice of how these scholars wrote and structured their articles. In other words, we should not simply take the literature for what it is—pages of words. Rather, we should read thoroughly. We should think while we are reading to really take it in. Only in this way can we benefit from our reading.
Meanwhile, in each of your papers, there are always several key articles that are cited repeatedly. They provide you with either theories or methods that you need to draw on. Other times, it could be a conclusion that you want to challenge in your paper. In short, these key articles are either examples for you to learn from, or it's a target, in which case you would want to challenge it. I usually read these papers very, very thoroughly. Read carefully from start to finish. Print it out. Keep it handy when I am writing my paper. Doing these steps will make that article almost as familiar as my own paper. When my friends asked me a question related to an article I cited often, I could immediately tell them the details such as which table in the article had the result they wanted to know about.
The strategies I have summarized above emerged through my own experience of reading journal articles. Hopefully it can be of help to you. If you have any good reading tips, you are also more than welcome to add on!
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "如何成为高效阅读的‘文献活字典’？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Doris Li for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on April 26, 2019 and translated into English in 2021.
A 2018 study published in Nature Biotechnology found that the prevalence of moderate to severe depression and anxiety among graduate students was more than six times the prevalence among the general population. Nature’s 2017 PhD survey revealed that doctoral students were most concerned about things like work-life balance, future career prospects, and financial issues. These findings highlight the significant mental health challenges faced by academics.
I used to struggle with taking care of my mental health. At the beginning of my graduate studies, I was worried that I couldn’t write a good MA thesis and I almost cried in front of my advisor. Later, I successfully defended my MA thesis, but I then started to doubt whether I could come up with a dissertation topic. Again, I discussed my “emotional panic” with my advisor. When it came time to graduate, worries over unemployment during my job hunt drove me to break down once more.
I did end up finding a job, but there was immense stress in my first year of working. I had to move, prepare materials for my lessons, apply for a work visa, and adjust to an entirely new environment. On top of all this, I had no time to develop any new projects, and papers submitted for peer review had all been rejected. This brought me to another breaking point with my advisor, as I worried that, if this trajectory continued, I would not be able to get tenure.
However, in my third year of working, my mentality had a drastic shift in a positive direction. I slowly started to accept that I was the type of person who gave their all to whatever they were working on. Even if a few years later I did not get tenure, I would be fine. I came to believe that, with my capabilities and work ethic, I could excel in other jobs even if academia did not work out. As I learned to prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and take whatever comes my way, I finally felt at ease to tackle anything the future had in store.
Because I am easily troubled by my mental health issues, I try to be mindful of practical strategies that help improve my mental state. I have found some tips useful to me and I will share them in this article. I am hoping that, by sharing my experiences, I can start a discussion about how to take care of our mental health. If there are techniques that you have found helpful, please feel free to share them.
Never compare yourself to others
This is SO important.
I have never been one to heavily compare myself to other people. In high school, I was in an “Olympic Class” in which students were trained for international science Olympiads and, for a long time, I scored in the bottom three of the class. Despite this, I studied at my own pace and was accepted into Renmin University of China, a prestigious university. Therefore, since high school, I have accepted that there are plenty of smarter people out there in the world. Rather than comparing myself to them, I should just focus on improving myself and doing what I need to do.
In academia, smart impressive people abound. From big names to rising stars to job market stars, intelligent and remarkable people are everywhere. Furthermore, in academia, everything is public information. If you want to see who won an award, what paper someone has published, or what research funding people have secured, all it takes is a quick google search. Surrounded by brilliance and bombarded with updates of these individuals’ every move, we understandably feel anxious about our status and success.
Fortunately, very rarely would I compare myself to others. When I began my PhD studies, I made very slow progress but I felt grounded with my pace. Although it was monotonous reading articles and writing papers all day and every day, doing these things calmed me down. Thinking back, in my six years of graduate studies, my mental health hit rock bottom when I began job hunting. I couldn’t help but browse the “Sociology Job Market Rumours” forum to keep tabs on who got campus interviews and who received job offers, which caused me to look at my situation with worry as I had not heard back from any of my applications. This addiction to constantly comparing my (lack of) progress to the achievements of others did not benefit me at all. Conversely, it triggered excessive anxiety, took up a lot of my time, and consumed my mental energy.
Among my current colleagues, some publish a number of first-authored articles in top journals every year, some have received millions in national funding for their research projects, and still others have countless awards under their belt. Nonetheless, I do not compare myself to those who work alongside me or those in my field. Everyone’s career path is different and everyone’s road to success is unique. Differences in research areas, scholarly interests, methodological approaches, and target audiences all lead to variations in research output. There is no use in comparing our own path to another’s.
Focus on the present
In the beginning, I mentioned how I struggled with mental health. In reflection, my biggest weakness is that I have trouble staying calm and tend to focus on worst-case scenarios (in Psychology, it is known as “catastrophizing”). This kind of mindset makes me very prone to feelings of anxiety. For example, when I first began my job, I was already worrying about the future. Would I be able to get tenure in the next six or seven years? What would I do if I couldn’t? During my PhD years, when I shared my worries with my advisor, he was always very patient with me. He would calm me down and tell me that, “Don’t worry so much. Don’t worry about what will come in three or five years. Just focus on the next three months. Think about what goals you can work on right now and do your best to accomplish them. We have no control over the things that will happen three or five years from now.” It took me a long time to understand what my advisor taught me.
Why do I emphasize focusing on the present? I have realized that, when I feel anxious and irritable, it is almost Zen to engage in self-calming exercises like analyzing data, writing papers, and editing papers. Doing these things allows me to momentarily forget all that is weighing on my mind and grounds me in a feeling of pure happiness. Rather than worrying about things that will happen half a decade from now, I like to try and appreciate the process of doing things I love. This is my understanding of how focusing on the present can help relieve moment-to-moment stress.
Focusing on the present moment can also help manage stress in the long term. When I was developing my dissertation proposal, I could only come up with the topics for two empirical chapters out of the three required. My advisor said to me, “It’s alright, just start writing. When you analyze data and write your first two chapters, a third topic will naturally come to mind.”
Later, when I began my job, I confessed to my advisor that I was not sure what my next big project should be. He said, “you are not a book scholar, so you don’t need to worry too much about what your next big project will be. Just think about what topic you would like to explore in your next paper. In the process of writing it, inspiration for your next project will come naturally.”
Things played out exactly as my advisor had said. My third dissertation chapter was finished with ease. My project ideas came flowing one after another and I tackled each project one step a time without feeling drained of ideas.
Let me give an example. I was once invited by a colleague to contribute a paper to a journal’s special issue. I readily agreed because at the time my collaborator and I were just about to write a paper that precisely fit the theme of the special issue. When we were writing the article for the special issue, I found another point of interest for further research. As such, my collaborator and I wrote another article that is now under review for publication. Moreover, through contributing to this special issue, I connected with an early-career scholar whose work I had been following. We agreed that once we wrapped up our articles for the special issue, we should collaborate. The resulting collaborative article that came from our informal conversation has now been accepted for publication. [Update: the three papers were about women's fertility autonomy in China, premarital pregnancy in China, and assortative mating in remarriage in China, respectively. All three papers have been published by now.]
The experiences I have had these past few years allow me to slowly understand that the best ways to deal with my anxiety are to be present in the moment and to enjoy the feelings of fulfillment brought about by “mindful working.” I earnestly work on every paper and challenge myself to think of new areas of research in the process. As I give my all to the current opportunities within my control, I worry less about what will happen in the future.
Find something that keeps you going
I feel that it is very easy for people in academia to question the meaning of their work. It is also easy to feel frustrated and fall victim to self-doubt. One reason is that every project takes several years to be fully completed (it takes an even longer time if people are looking to publish a book). Additionally, when papers go under review, they can be criticized harshly and rejected in an instant, turning the hard work that went into it to dust. At times like these, it is difficult to not question oneself.
Thus, I believe it is very important to find meaningful things to engage in. For me, that has been public sociology. I am very passionate about disseminating social sciences research to the general public (particularly when it comes to topics of marriage, family, and gender). The reach of most academic papers is very limited, so many important findings are not noticed by the average individual. I find that it is an extremely gratifying experience to convey scholarly findings in digestible terms to those beyond the academic sphere. Writing articles for popular media while staying true to science has become a creative hobby of mine. Over the course of writing, I have discovered that this creative outlet has significantly relieved me from work stress.
Some of my friends love to teach. They enjoy helping their students grow and that is a source of fulfillment for them. Another friend of mine specializes in research on gender and work. She served as a consultant for many local organizations in hopes of promoting workplace diversity and inclusion. Find something that keeps you going, instead of focusing all your meaning-making on publishing academic papers. This is something I find helpful for maintaining good mental health in academia.
Having a guilty pleasure
This tip was inspired by a friend. To put it simply, we need to find our favorite way to spend our leisure time. For a long time, my guilty pleasure was keeping up with new episodes of Gossip Girl every week or watching various music videos from my favorite singer Jane Zhang. Later, I followed a Chinese reality show about intimate relationships, which featured the interactions of three celebrity couples. I was really engaged with the TV series and entertainment shows I liked. For example:
Every week, when I was waiting to watch new episodes of TV shows, it became something that I could look forward to. Moreover, when I was watching those shows, I forgot all about work-related stress. In conclusion, I highly recommend everyone find their guilty pleasure, immerse yourself deeply (do it in moderation, however), and enjoy yourself. This is also another way to maintain positive mental health.
Of course, the aforementioned examples are all drawn from my personal experiences. Please feel free to share any well-kept secrets of your guilty pleasures or helpful strategies.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "如何在学术界保持心理健康？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Evalina Liu for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on October 24, 2017 and translated into English in 2018.
A post written on Weibo (a Chinese microblogging website) in 2013 by Feng Gang, a sociology professor from Zhejiang University, has recently resurfaced and led to a heated discussion online. My friend and colleague suggested that as a leading blog in China that aims at promoting gender equality, Ms-Muses should publish a response. Therefore, I take the initiative to write this article. I would like to start by sharing my experience growing up from a little girl (in a patriarchal society) to a university professor (with research interests in gender relations and social inequality). I will also provide some relevant research findings later in this article.
Ever since I was little, my mom, along with my friends’ parents, had always told us, “Women should not work too hard. It is far more important for girls to marry well than anything else.” Yet, under such childhood environments, I became a feminist.
Although I was always at the top of my class from elementary school to junior high school, all my teachers, even my mom included, kept reminding me that getting good grades in my early education did not necessarily mean that I would still get good grades later on. In contrast, although my male classmates were not as hardworking, and their grades certainly were not as good, they still often received praises from teachers and parents saying, “You are so smart; you will have really good grades if you just put in a little bit more effort.”
To this day, I still remember one math teacher in my elementary school, who had a respectable reputation in the district, commented in my homework: “Yue’s academic performance is good, but she is not smart. She’ll have to work hard to make up for a lack of intelligence.”
In high school, I got into the “Olympic Class” in which students were trained for international science Olympiads. We had to learn three years’ worth of math, physics, biology, and chemistry in Grade 10. I had a hard time catching up to this kind of pace and my grades began to drop, which seemingly confirmed the conventional expectation that “girls would eventually fall behind boys in school.” My math teacher even arranged a one-to-one meeting with me, suggesting that I should drop out of the “Olympic Class.” Looking back, I am actually very proud of my younger self. Despite being a powerless little girl, I was brave and determined enough to tell the powerful male teacher, “No, I am not quitting. I want to stay.” (To some degree, I also feel grateful that he respected my decision at that time.)
In order to stay in the class, I worked extra hard throughout the rest of my high school years. I wrote down every question that teachers discussed in class, and then went over it again on my own. The next day, I asked my friends to explain to me the harder questions that I did not understand. I scored only 46% in math exams for a long time, but in my last year of high school, my mark went up to 92% for the first time. At the time I felt very satisfied with my progress. However, my math teacher said to me privately, “You did well this time…(pause)…but it was mainly because the exam was easier”. In fact, up until the end of high school, I maintained my math average at 92%. How can I still vividly remember things that happened over ten years ago? It is because these kinds of encounters have made me realize how bumpy and difficult the road to success can be for women.
In addition, in every mock exam, nine out of the top ten students in my cohort were female. Yet, our Chinese teacher made a comment in front of the whole class, “There is only one male student out of all top ten students in sciences; this is very abnormal. In an older cohort, there was only one female student among the top ten students; that’s the way it should be.”
Even as a high school student, I already wanted to start a revolution in class.
Why was it considered as “abnormal” for female students to achieve academic excellence?
Why was my performance in math attributed only to hard work, but not to my intellectual ability?
Why did the teacher think it was only because “the exam was easier” when my math grades significantly improved?
Looking back, my reactions were quite immature at the time. I used my rebellious adolescent way to show my resentment. For example, I would sleep through my Chinese class, eat my breakfast during early morning classes, and remain seated while my teacher demanded me to stand still for a certain period of time.
During my senior year of high school, I remained among the top students in my cohort. Eventually, I went on to a prestigious university in Beijing. Strikingly, I encountered a male professor in college who expressed his belief in class that “women do not belong in academia.” I found it extremely ridiculous that he could make such remark when he had so many outstanding female colleagues and had a daughter as well.
In graduate school, there were many incidents where my friends, who worked in male-dominated fields, told me that “male graduate students in the department always get together and gossip about the female professors who all seem to be beautiful blonde women.”
All these experiences sparked my interest in gender studies. From undergrad, to grad school, and PhD, I met numerous inspiring and accomplished female role models whom I looked up to. Their hard work, rigorous research, and passionate curiosity, along with their genuine desire to provide support and guidance for students, aspired me to push forward.
As I got to know more about gender research, I realized that girls have been outperforming boys for a long time in the classroom. According to U.S. historical evidence, girls had long surpassed boys academically in secondary school. One reason why women lagged behind men in attaining tertiary education was that most universities did not accept female students (DiPrete & Buchmann 2013). It was not until the inception of the Seven Sisters (colleges) that most universities began accepting female applicants. Currently, in the United States, about 60% of the bachelor’s and master’s degrees and 50% of the doctoral degrees are awarded to women. Even in China, women have surpassed men in college enrollment ever since 2009 (Yeung 2013).
Nevertheless, even today, we still see comments such as “less than 10% of female graduate students take academia as their career path after graduation.” Professor Feng Gang should ask himself: Is it really because women are less competent? How come we never question whether the academia is really female-friendly? Women still take on a greater share of the housework and childcare burden. Balancing familial and domestic duties with work is something that most female PhDs and professors have to consider and worry about. Claudia Goldin (2004) found that by their mid-30s to mid-40s, college graduate men managed to achieve career and family about two times as often as women. A lot of times, women are put into the predicament to choose between their career and family, but this is seldom a problem that men have to face.
Even if women work harder to balance both work and family, they may still be unfairly evaluated as less ideal workers who will eventually drop out of the workforce for familial duties. Shelley J. Correll and her colleagues (2007) conducted an audit study in which participants evaluated application materials for a pair of equally qualified female job candidates who differed on parental status. The results showed that mothers were perceived as less competent and less committed to their work and were even recommended for a lower starting salary.
This is my story. I believe every woman has their own story to share, a story that “nevertheless, she persisted.”
Hillary Clinton once said, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.” It is numerous women’s effort and persistence that enable positive change, inspire action, and move communities forward.
In short, every country should advocate for feminism and gender equality, not because women are men’s mothers, wives or daughters, but because “women’s rights are human rights.”
The opportunities, successes, and accomplishments that women enjoy today are attributable to the perseverance and hard work of many generations of women. Throughout their lives, every woman faces gender discrimination both blatantly and covertly. Here, I would like to pay my tribute to all the women who have persisted, regardless of how many times the society has made them doubt themselves. I also want to ask everyone to stop judging girls and women based on stereotypes, because bias is what holds many women back.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "一位‘坚持走科研道路’女学者的自白." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Christine Yang for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia