My friend James Herman invited me to join the writing process blog tour. James and I have been friends for almost two decades, and have recently become scientific collaborators in our shared field of neuroscience. As a scientist, most of my current writing aims to disseminate my work through the publication of primary research articles. To this end, I was fortunate to receive an education that provided me with a strong foundation in concise prose. My sixth grade teacher taught how to construct an outline, and from this outline to craft an essay. The technique appealed to my natural sense of organization, and I have relied on it to this day. Throughout high school and college, I honed my writing and learned to include elaborate and symbolic language, and to formulate a thesis. I was fortunate to have guidance from my parents as well. My father, a chemist, is an excellent writer and poet, and he edited my essays and prose from an early age. In the ninth grade I wrote a research paper on tuberculosis for my introductory biology course. My father provided his medical dictionary to decipher the original research papers I used as source material. So impressed was my dad with the final product that he shared it with a colleague, the director of a tuberculosis research center, and encouraged him to let me join the lab. The director agreed (I worked on Staph, not TB) and my research career was launched. Today I am a postdoctoral fellow studying the molecular biology of drug addiction and depression, hoping to land an academic faculty position in the next year.
What am I working on:
I am currently crafting what is known as a Research Statement. This is a 2-3 page document that introduces my research background and future goals to a panel that will evaluate me as a candidate for an academic tenure-track research position. The market for such positions is tight and competitive, and the career statement intends to prove that I am a productive scientist, capable of generating data and securing funding. Furthermore, it should be clear that I have developed a unique scientific perspective and have crafted a plan that differs from that of my current and previous mentors.
It is a daunting task.
The Research Statement consists of an introductory paragraph that highlights the research accomplishments of the postdoctoral fellowship, and alludes to the main focus of the candidate’s future research. Next is a concise description of previous work, both in graduate and undergraduate research, as well as work with collaborators. This shows a history of research productivity, a trajectory of scientific interest, as well as the ability to seek the expertise of other researchers. If possible, it is helpful to include representative data figures of recent work, since the panel reviewing the application consists of scientists that typically digest material through graphical representation (a thousand words…). These sections are peppered with allusions to awards and fellowships won, presentations at scientific meetings, and citations. For most applications it is important to include a section on teaching and mentorship, as these are critical aspects of the research career and often teaching is required for an academic post. At least one third to half of the statement is devoted to a detailed description of the plan for future research. Academic research is costly, and hiring committees have a commitment to select candidates that will be able to secure independent funding. The research statement is thus an opportunity to present a research plan that can be imagined as several successful grant applications.
So far, I have generated a 1-page research statement that I have submitted for some soft interviews, and a few applications to meetings. The sections on past and current research, as well as teaching, mentorship, and collaboration are relatively complete, but I am struggling with crafting a plan for future research. As I am still collecting data for my current project, and feel that I am just now confident in my expertise in this work, I have had a hard time thinking creatively about a new direction. I have two project ideas, but they are not comprehensive or unique enough to qualify as a research ‘identify.’ So where do new ideas come from? As with writing, reading helps. Diving into the current literature uncovers holes in our existing knowledge that often lead to interesting questions. I am working on reading and discussing ideas with my colleagues, to find inspiration.
How does my work differ from others of its genre:
Scientific writing is in general more concise than other forms of writing. This is due to word restrictions set by publishers, the use of figures instead of text to convey information, and the fact that scientists must consume a terrifying lot of literature to stay current. I tend to find concise writing appealing and natural, a gift I am grateful for in a profession for which I don’t often feel I am a natural. The Research Statement is also a concise piece of prose and, as with research articles, each sentence has to pack in a considerable amount of meaning. One mentor advised me to imagine that it will be read by a search committee member on her mobile device, while walking from one seminar to another at a meeting. Concise writing requires greater clarity, as it lacks the opportunity to state one idea in several ways. Scientists are aided by writing primarily for other scientists in their field, and can thus rely on familiar composition and sentence structure to convey meaning. I find that it is the precision and formulaic nature of scientific prose that enables complex ideas to be stated with minimal language. This thrust towards similarity between my writing and that of others is what allows it to be read and digested while multitasking, i.e. most scientists fit in their reading while doing 8 other things.
Why do I write what I do:
The main mode of advancement in a research career is through the successful publication of original research articles. Typically I am engaged in some form of communication of my data, either through abstracts to be presented at scientific meetings or original articles to be submitted for publication. The publication process is lengthy, and I currently am in a phase of revision, in which I gather additional data to satisfy the requirements of scientists that have reviewed my recent submission and asked for additional data to determine if the manuscript is appropriate for publication. While I gather this data, the manuscript is on the back burner. Once this paper is published I will be “on the market,” that is, I will seek and apply for an academic position as a tenure-track research faculty at either a medical center or a university. Hence my current focus on the Research Statement, described above.
As a scientist I am also required to write grant and award applications, in order to secure funding to continue my work. The structure of these differs from that of a research article, in that a grant application describes unpublished, preliminary data, with a focus on the intention for the work, rather than its successful completion. As a student and trainee, I have had only minimal experience with this type of writing, but as a faculty member my main focus will shift abruptly from designing experiments and gathering data, to writing grant applications.
How does my writing process work:
My writing process begins with outlining. For a research paper, after I have generated the figures, I outline the various sections (using the very technique I learned in sixth grade) and then fill in the outline with prose. I will spend the majority of the writing process developing and detailing the outline, as the prose will follow easily from this. A manuscript that describes four years of work in 2500 words requires the crafting of exquisitely precise sentences. I tend to craft sentences meditatively, either while jogging, showering, or working at the bench. I find that process delightful, and I will chew over a sentence for weeks before putting words to paper. Once I have a draft, I ask a few scientific peers for comments and edits. In addition to the co-authors, I ask for the edits of a colleague that is less familiar with the research. This is helpful, as it is often hard for me to assess clarity on work that I am so intimately familiar with. Next I share the manuscript with my mentor and other senior authors, and after their revisions I submit to a journal for publication.
I am fortunate to be a native English speaker and a naturally gifted writer that was educated with great emphasis on prose. This skill has been acknowledged by several of my scientific mentors and has aided me throughout my career. In fact, the reviewers of my current manuscript did not ask for any textual revisions. A welcome gift.
How does my writing process not work:
Procrastination. Writing is hard, publishing is harder, and I find that I am reticent to start the task. I will even delay making the figures, because I am so fearful of entering the review/revision/rejection cycle. Once I do begin, the process is quite pleasurable, as designing figures and writing prose is a complete departure from my typical lab grind, and relies on a different set of instincts and skills. I have procrastinated lately on completing my Research Statement, and have turned instead to looking for inspiration to mold my scientific identity and plan. I hope that as I continue my career, and have more success in publishing, my confidence will grow and I will not be as fearful of starting the writing process. In the mean time, I am grateful for this Writing Process Blog Tour. It has greased the prose wheels for me, and inspired me to keep at it.