Monday, July 14, 2014

Retirement of a Scientist: When Should I Announce It?

You've decided to retire. Depending on your organization's rules, you will have to file paperwork by a certain deadline and inform your supervisor or department chair. But deciding when to make your decision to retire publicly known is less straight-forward. Should you wait until the last minute? Do you drop hints as much as a year before? Do you announce at the same time you file the paperwork or tell your supervisor/chair? When should you tell your staff/students? When and how should you tell close coworkers/friends? Why should you even be concerned about when to tell others about your impending retirement?

Some people put off telling as long as possible for fear of becoming marginalized (or worse) during the final weeks or months of employment. Others announce their intentions far in advance. Experts often recommend treating retirement procedures and announcements much the same way you would leaving for another job. If your departure will disrupt the organization and significantly affect co-workers or students, then some time will be required to square things away before your last day. I know colleagues who retired but then returned as a part-time, paid employee to finish out projects. I think it's a good idea to have your department chair or lab director make the announcement, which takes the burden off of you and sounds more official.

Although you could tell people long before your retirement date, there is no real reason to and may lead to unexpected and unpleasant consequences. Almost every retiree I've talked to has said that as soon as you make the announcement, you will be treated differently at work. You become a lame duck, and people may begin to write you off sooner than you like. Or they may decide to take advantage of the situation. One colleague said, "As soon as the word gets out, the vultures will start circling." He was referring to colleagues who coveted his lab/office space, equipment, and funding that (they assumed) would be up for grabs when he departed. Not everyone has this experience, but some scientists may find it difficult to give up the resources that they've worked so hard to acquire. Having co-workers prematurely claiming your stuff just makes it worse. I know of at least one scientist who rescinded plans to retire when a young colleague became a bit too aggressive in taking over his program.

If your students and/or projects will continue beyond your retirement and are dependent upon those resources, then it's important to work out a transition plan with your superiors. By working out a plan to transfer space and resources to someone of your choice (and getting official approval for that transfer) before announcing your retirement will help discourage the vultures and ensure your projects and students are taken care of in your absence. Once you retire, you will have no say in such matters.

I decided a year ahead as to the approximate date of retirement and contacted the person responsible for guiding employees through the process (usually such people must keep your information confidential). I selected the precise date about two months before termination (this was my agency's recommended time frame). Then I decided on what date to inform my supervisor and scheduled a meeting with him. It's a good idea to have all your paperwork in order with HR before you meet with your boss. Depending on your relationship, the meeting may be a brief, formal interaction or a more friendly conversation. If appropriate, you can discuss the possibility of becoming an emeritus scientist/professor and negotiate what that status might entail. At such a meeting you also can discuss having your boss make the announcement—and when—so that you have time to tell close co-workers and your staff and students personally (you don't want them to find out in an email announcement). I set up a meeting with staff to tell them right after I met with my supervisor. I met individually with close co-workers/friends to tell them.

When you announce your retirement (and how) is obviously an individual choice and dependent on a number of factors. However, it's important to give it some thought ahead of time.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Retirement of a Scientist: When Should I Retire?

We are talking about retirement in this series of posts. Once your contemporaries begin retiring, you will begin wondering if it's time for you too to put down the pipette and hang up the lab coat (or whatever the equivalent is in your specialty). In the last post, I covered how to determine if you are ready to stop working. In this post, let's explore the factors that determine when you should retire.

Deciding exactly when to retire is partly dependent on one's finances, as discussed in a previous post. Other factors include age, health, job satisfaction, and the spouse's situation and preferences.

Will I Be Forced To Retire?

In the past, people over the age of 65 were thought to have embarked on an inevitable decline in mental and physical faculties, a belief that underpinned the widespread implementation of mandatory retirement. It provided an easy way for an employer to replace aging employees with younger staff to ostensibly maintain overall productivity. Mandatory retirement was later challenged in several countries (e.g., as age discrimination in the U.S.) because it was not based on a person's actual performance but on some arbitrary chronology that did not necessarily apply to everyone. Scientists in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia no longer have a mandatory retirement age and can work as long as they are able. Other countries may have different rules.

Even with mandatory retirement, one can continue to work. A famous example is Grace Hopper, a computer scientist, who made important contributions to computer programming (she's credited with coining the term "debugging"to describe finding and fixing computer glitches). She was retired at age 65 by the UNIVAC division of Sperry-Rand Corp. (now Unisys). She then went to work for the U.S. Navy's Naval Data Automation Command and achieved the rank of rear admiral. Fifteen years later at age 79, she involuntarily retired from that post (she was able to remain on active duty beyond the mandatory retirement age by special approval from Congress). Hopper almost immediately started a new career as a senior consultant with Digital Equipment Corp. (which has no mandatory retirement) and worked there until her death at age 85.

It's great if you are able to carry on like Grace Hopper and continue to be active and productive into your eighties. But not everyone is able to or wants to.

What's the Best Time To Retire?

Some scientists retire in their fifties or sixties, but others stay on into their seventies and beyond. For me, an important consideration was to retire early enough so that I would be physically and mentally capable of doing what I wanted to do once I stopped working—and there were things I wanted to do before I got too old to do them. Someone who quits at age fifty-five is still young enough to travel, to
learn a new skill, or even to embark on a new career. At seventy-five, a person may be less physically and mentally fit to do volunteer work in Africa, learn to ski, travel the world, or go back to school. Yes, there are individuals who remain energetic and mentally sharp well into their eighties and nineties. But most people don't. Some don't even make it to those ages to find out. Mortality statistics show that even though the death rate in the U.S., for example, has declined over the past 75 years (see graph), average life expectancy is only 78.7 years.

Even if you exceed this average life expectancy, your physical functioning will likely decline. The next graph shows the percentage of the population (of Americans in 2012) exhibiting difficulty with some physical function such as walking, stooping, or carrying. At age 75, about half are having difficulty with some daily task; by age 85, 86% have some type of physical impairment (66% have difficulty walking, for example). You may be lucky and fall in the 15% who are able to perform all daily tasks well after age 85, but it would be wishful thinking to assume you will.

In our calculations, my husband and I figured that we would be in the majority—those who will have difficulty doing one or more daily physical tasks after age 74. We estimated that if we retired in our mid-sixties, we might have another ten good years in which we could still travel easily and do other physically challenging activities. That calculation was quite sobering. Ten years is not a very long time.

A general rule of thumb is that you want to retire before you have to. Knowing when that will be is not easy; if you are no longer productive or are having difficulty with some tasks, then you've probably stayed too long. I began noticing that it took me longer to finish certain tasks and to bounce back from physically-demanding fieldwork. Not enough that others noticed or that would interfere with my job, but I felt it clearly. Many older people discover ways to compensate for minor mental and physical changes, and I certainly used those. However, those gradual changes alerted me to the fact that I was slowing down a bit. Those are just a few signs that someone might watch for if they want to stop working early enough to be able to attempt physically or mentally challenging activities in retirement.

In the end, the decision of when will likely rest on a combination of ability and desire to continue working. Some scientists may feel less and less satisfied with research or teaching and decide it's time to hang up the lab coat. If you are passionate about your research, and it requires access to a laboratory or special equipment, for example, then you may decide to continue working. If your research is mostly computer based, then you might easily continue your work, perhaps part-time, at home—if that is what you want. Many scientists change the focus of their research over a career, and thinking ahead to retirement might be wise in formulating such a change.

Identifying something to do in retirement that is just as interesting and challenging as your former work is not only essential but can help you decide when to retire. I planned to continue some research and publishing for a while in retirement to ease the transition, but also wanted to do something new. During the last six years of working, I consciously gravitated toward visual communication of science (something I was good at and enjoyed) with the idea that this would be readily transferable into retirement. Is there some aspect of your job that you love to do and that you might spend a lot more time doing if given the chance? If you enjoy writing about science, for example, then science blogging or writing a book might provide a good outlet. If you like being outdoors or interacting with people, then volunteering or working part-time as a guide at a park or science museum might be fulfilling. For me, I enjoy writing as well as developing better ways to communicate science. So in addition to blogging, I'm now giving lectures, hosting workshops, and creating video tutorials to help others be more effective science communicators.

Or you may want to develop something totally unrelated to science--woodworking, building model trains, starting a vineyard, gourmet cooking, whatever. Or you may just want to spend your remaining years spoiling your grandchildren or walking on the beach.

However, it's a good idea to try out your plan ahead of time to see if it is sufficiently satisfying. I started blogging and making science videos long before I retired. I spent enough time at it to know that it would be fulfilling in the long run. The same goes for anything else one fantasizes about doing in retirement. Planning to take up wood carving or travel writing? Try it out for a while before retirement. You may see that it is not what you thought…that it is not sufficiently challenging or interesting. On the other hand, it may get you so fired up that you can't wait to retire and focus entirely on your new activity.

What If My Spouse Isn't Ready To Retire?

If you have a spouse who works, things get even more complicated. Couples don't always agree about when to retire. One spouse may be ready to retire at 55, but the other wants to continue working another five to ten years. Among our friends and acquaintances, the difference is less, with one spouse wanting to work only a year or two longer than the other. Having one spouse working while the other is "having fun" puttering around the house or traveling can lead to resentment, however. On the other hand, if the retired spouse takes over the housekeeping and cooking chores, then that may balance the outside work by the employed spouse and reduce friction. An age difference can add to the discrepancy in readiness (or need) to retire—something to consider in financial planning. The older spouse may be forced to retire due to health or other issues long before the younger spouse is ready to quit working.

Fortunately, my husband and I had similar feelings about approximately when to retire, which may have been partly because we were close in age and partly because we had been discussing our options for several years—an ongoing conversation that gradually merged our respective outlooks. I was the first to really express an intention to retire and was prepared to do so whether or not my husband retired at the same time. But I was also willing to compromise and work a couple of years longer if my husband considered retiring at the same time. We decided that it was important to retire together because we both would be free to travel and do other things together. We eventually settled on a date that we both felt comfortable with.

Talking about retirement is not necessarily easy, however, and some couples may avoid it because it may dredge up financial problems (a reason to set up a retirement plan early and stick to it) or marital problems (the prospect of spending 24 hours/7 days a week together may terrify some couples). Some people have strong opinions about their careers and are unwilling to compromise when there is a disagreement about when to retire. One spouse may be so totally committed to research or teaching that they cannot see things from their less enthusiastic spouse's perspective. For us, what worked well was to think about retirement as a joint future together and doing what was best for us as a couple rather than as individuals.

Another concern is whether both of you will have something to do in retirement. If you have a schedule of activities and lots of interests but your spouse has nothing to keep them occupied, there will be conflict. I think it's important to have time to yourself in retirement and is something that needs to be discussed and worked out by retiring couples. My husband and I "work" at home but in separate areas of the house (we often text or email each other to minimize interruptions). We both have our "projects" and separate activities that keep us quite busy on a day to day basis. We then get together in the evening to have dinner, to watch the news, and to talk about our day. This arrangement is very similar to our pre-retirement life, which may be why it works so well for us.

Once you've decided to retire, the next decision is when to announce it….the subject of the next post.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Retirement of a Scientist: Do I Want To Stop Working?

Visitors who have stumbled upon this website through a Google search for retirement information may be flummoxed at the question posed in the title of this post. Is she kidding? Who doesn't want to stop working? Well, the answer is: those people who love their work. And scientists often adore doing their research—thinking of an important question, designing a rigorous experiment to answer it, meticulously conducting the study, poring over the data, and putting it all together in a brilliantly-written article. It's just all the other stuff they dislike and that makes them dream about being free of arcane bureaucratic regulations, short deadlines, interminable office meetings, pompous or toadying colleagues, bullying or incompetent bosses, laggardly graduate students/post-docs, increasing pressure to publish, dwindling grant funds, scathing journal reviews, and many other annoyances (insert yours here) that one experiences over a scientific career. I'm not complaining, you understand. Just trying to describe the Satisfaction Balance Sheet that ultimately determines whether a scientist continues working or voluntarily calls it quits. As one progresses through a career, the balance sheet changes, tipping one way or another. Also, as we age, our tolerance for the annoyances declines (faster for some of us than others). If scientists were able to do their research without the irritations, I doubt many would retire. Alas, that is never the case.

In the last post, I considered some of the financial aspects of retirement and how to determine one's monetary readiness to quit working. Once I knew that I could retire comfortably, I had to decide if I wanted to stop working. This was a very difficult question for me to answer, whereas my husband seemed to have less trouble. However, we initially had no idea how to go about making such a life-changing decision. There were so many unknowns. If we delayed retirement, would we continue to enjoy our work as much as in the past? Would leaving our jobs mean a loss of identity and purpose? Were there ways to continue doing science outside of a regular job if we wanted to continue contributing? Were there other things we wanted to do that our jobs would prevent or interfere with? Does retirement lead to increased mortality (a few of our colleagues had dropped dead or developed serious illness within a year of retirement)? On the other hand, if we continued working, would the stress be increasingly unhealthful as we aged? We made a list of such questions and tried to answer them as best we could. For some questions, there were no clear answers; however, by asking them, we became more aware of all the various ways our lives might change and even to plan ahead for them.

As I hinted above, job satisfaction ended up playing a big role in our decision. Both of us were experiencing changes in the workplace that we did not like and that increasingly interfered with our capacity to do what we enjoyed--science. I'm sure those readers who have been doing research and/or teaching for a while know what I'm talking about. And there were signs that things were going to get much worse for scientific researchers and educators down the road. This situation was a bit worse for me in a government position with endless regulations, forms to fill out, and required training. I was also getting burned out and frustrated finding research funds, especially since as an employee of a Federal science agency I was barred from applying to other government grant sources (e.g., NSF). I was even beginning to tire of doing research, writing it up, and running the review gauntlet. My husband was probably going to have to teach even more if he continued working, but he was tired of teaching. In other words, our workplaces had changed, and we had changed.

We both could have continued working and been successful at juggling all the administrative stuff along with the research and teaching obligations—as we always had. The question finally boiled down to whether we wanted to spend the next ten or twenty (if we were lucky) years doing a lot of stuff we simply did not enjoy and enduring all the stress that goes along with it….or doing only what we enjoyed. In the end, we chose the latter. By retiring we could avoid most if not all of the undesirable tasks required in our jobs but continue doing those activities we did enjoy.

In an emeritus status, one can often retain an office (and possibly lab space) and continue writing and conducting research (while no longer having to teach, attend meetings, or advise students). An emeritus professor or scientist can basically do whatever they want, work or not, or travel whenever the mood strikes. In one fell swoop, it's possible to rid yourself of all the onerous tasks you dreaded on a day-to-day basis and be left with only those activities you love to do.

Life is too short. And as you age, that remaining time seems to fly past faster and faster.

The decision may be different for you, depending on your specific situation and preferences. Some scientists never want to stop working; they love research or teaching and want to continue as long as possible. A few scientists retire from one job and take another in a related or entirely new field. I have a colleague who retired from a government research position to take a teaching job at a small college. For other scientists, retirement offers the opportunity to do those things they didn't have time for while working and building a career. I decided to pursue my interests in science videography as well as continue my interests in science communication and blogging.

In the end, the realization that I could quit working and still be an active participant in science (in some capacity) convinced me that I was ready to retire. My personal view is that retirement need not involve stagnation and boredom. I see it as a new adventure, one with more freedom and opportunity than when I was younger.

In the next posts, I'll discuss when to retire and when to tell others you plan to retire.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Retirement of a Scientist: Can I Afford To Quit Working?

In this series of posts, I'm talking about retirement. In the next few posts, I'll consider some questions that a scientist contemplating retirement needs to answer. Even if you are early- or mid-career, it's important to ponder these questions because they will help you plan ahead for this important stage in your life.

Science is unique, I think, in that many (most?) of its practitioners actually enjoy what they do and would continue doing science even with little or no pay. At least, that is how I've always personally viewed scientific research. This attitude is unlike that of someone who has worked in retail or in a factory making widgets and who cannot wait to retire and never handle another sale or build another widget. Loving what you do makes the decision to retire difficult for some of us in science. Whereas the sales person or factory worker wants to retire as early as it is financially feasible, the scientist may never want to retire…at least not completely.

So what should you consider in making the decision to retire?

Obviously, finances need to be taken into account. When can you afford to stop working? How do you determine this? How do you plan for it? My husband and I began planning and saving as soon as we left graduate school and got jobs—toward the time when one or both of us could no longer work. We weren't really thinking in terms of voluntary retirement back then because we planned to continue working as long as possible. We were young, enthusiastic, and loved doing science. It never occurred to us at the beginning of our careers that we might change our minds about retirement as we got older. We set up the usual savings, investment, and pension plans. Then we didn't think about it much over the next thirty years (although we did make periodic adjustments as our circumstances changed).

As I'll explain more fully in the next post, our attitude toward retirement changed as we aged. Whenever a colleague retired, we would discuss the possibility of our own retirement. When we began talking seriously about retirement, our first step was to see a financial planner who could tell us if and when it would be feasible for us to retire. We did this about six years before the date we tentatively targeted. At this point, we had not yet made the final decision to retire. We just wanted to see if it was feasible to stop working. The answer was that yes, we could retire on that date and live comfortably for the rest of our lives. It's probably much wiser to do this check at least ten years before retirement so that you will have time to make adjustments: increase savings, decrease spending, or delay retirement to get a larger pension. As your situation changes, it's wise to revisit your retirement plan—at least every five years or so. You also want to have a good idea of what level of retirement income you will need to be comfortable. For example, someone who plans to travel extensively in retirement will need more than someone who will stay home and play with the grandkids. There are lots of other considerations such as what the stock market is doing…you may need to delay retirement if markets fall. Also, it's wise to look at your portfolio and revise it as you approach retirement. A financial planner can help with all of this, especially if you are not very good at financial matters.

Here is a good list of (mostly financial) signs that you are ready to retire:

1. You can follow your targeted retirement budget for at least six months (do a trial run to find out).
2. You have reliable health insurance coverage (keep in mind that Medicare (U.S.) won't be available until age 65).
3. Your children are financially independent.
4. You have little debt or are close to it.
5. Your investment portfolio is large and sufficiently diverse to weather a market downturn.
6. You are emotionally ready to quit working (more about this in the next post).

Anyway, our planning exercise told us that finances were not an impediment if we wanted to stop working. Even if the answer had been that we needed to work a bit longer, the financial planner would have been able to tell us when we could retire at our desired retirement income level. In any case, knowing that earliest retirement date is very helpful in planning. You don't necessarily have to select that date; you may decide to delay retirement for other reasons than financial.

Once we knew we could afford to retire, we then had to decide whether to retire. And that wasn't easy.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

I'm Retired, Not Dead

What do you think when you hear that a scientist has retired? Do you assume that they're no longer contributing to science or to society? Do you imagine them sitting in a rocking chair, staring out the window, and waiting for their pension check? Heading to the nursing home? Do you wonder what retired scientists do all day? Do you wonder what you'll do when you retire?

At a recent conference, my husband and I had dinner with a group of colleague/friends, all of whom could be considered "senior scientists". The topic of retirement came up, which was not unusual given our group's makeup. Rather what struck me was how many of the group had not thought that much about retirement and were fuzzy about what someone in our profession might do in retirement.

Although those of us in science expend a lot of effort planning and building our careers, we give little thought to the last phase—the retirement years, which for some scientists can be as productive as the on-the-job years. Almost no one thinks about retirement when they are just starting out; it is so far in the future and, for some, depressing to ponder. Some say they will never retire; you will have to carry them out feet first. Others have a vague notion that they'll retire at some point but don't make any effort to plan ahead. A (very) few realize that retirement, like any other career stage, benefits from advance planning and will begin to map out their route to retirement as much as ten years before.

When I was in my forties, I could not imagine myself retired and always thought I would do research until I dropped dead. I recall running into an older colleague who announced that he planned to retire the next year when he turned fifty-five and start a Christmas tree farm. I politely congratulated him and said, "That sounds great." Actually, I was thinking, "Is he crazy? How can any self-respecting scientist retire so early….and no longer do science?"

Fast-forward twenty years. I no longer think that the colleague who retired "early" was so crazy. In fact, I decided to retire myself and did so almost two years ago (although I did not make it known on this blog). My husband also retired from his professorship a month later. We did not come to this decision easily; however, once we analyzed our professional and financial situations and what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives, the decision seemed obvious.

Both of us are currently in "emeritus" status with our respective institutions, which means we are still active but doing what we want and when and where we want to do it. Although I'm still writing and publishing scientific papers (I've got a file cabinet full of data that will last me another twenty years at least), I've become more active in science communication and videography, which lets me combine my love of science with my more artistic side. I find this new activity challenging and fun; also, my new focus aligns nicely with the growing emphasis on scientists being better communicators. More importantly, it gives me a sense of purpose and identity, which is something that retirees often struggle with. My husband still has funded projects and students, but those will finish soon or be transferred to colleagues. Both of us regularly receive invitations to participate on panels, to give seminars or plenary talks at conferences, to collaborate/advise research groups in other countries, and similar activities, which we accept or decline depending on our preferences and schedules. In addition, we started a non-profit foundation, which provides travel grants to students in our field. Actually, we set it up six years ago with the idea that it would give us another way to continue contributing directly to science and education in retirement. For us, it was important to continue having a real purpose in life…something to look forward to and be responsible for. Other retired scientists may feel differently and simply wish to spend time with family or doing hobbies. It's a very personal decision, and no one approach is better than another.

What I don't like about retirement is the change in other people's perception of me. It's clear from their comments that some people assume that I have not only retired from my job but have no further interest in research and education. A few are clearly shocked and puzzled that I would retire, even though they offer congratulations and good wishes. These colleagues assume that being retired means that I've quit science altogether, when it just means I've quit working for pay. I guess I shouldn't be surprised given my reaction twenty years ago to my colleague's decision to retire. When I run into someone who knows I've retired, they invariably ask, "How's retirement?", usually in a jovial voice, indicating that they believe I'm spending all my time sipping wine on my back porch. At first, I didn't know how to answer the question; I somehow felt I should correct their misperception and explain that I was still working and contributing. Now, I usually say something like, "I'm really enjoying it. Being able to work on what I'm interested in, on my own schedule, is great." If they ask what I'm working on, I provide more detail.

Now that I have some idea of what "retirement" is like, I thought I would write a series of posts about it. If you are a late-career scientist/professor and thinking about retirement, you may find my experience of interest. If you are early- to mid-career, you may benefit from hearing about how other scientists plan for and conduct their retirement. I wish I had thought about retirement much earlier than I did. There are actually quite a few questions to consider in planning for retirement, which will be the topics of those posts:

How do I decide if and when to retire (and when to announce it)?
Can I afford (financially) to retire?
How can I ease the transition gracefully (wind down projects, deal with students and staff)?
How do I sustain my sense of identity and purpose in retirement?
Do I want to continue making scientific contributions (for example, as emeritus), focus on a new activity, or just kick back and take it easy?

There may be others, but those will do for starters.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Presentation Myths: Hand-wringing and Other Nervous Hand Gestures

Samantha was nervous as she looked out at the audience. She thanked the organizer of the symposium and began her talk. Nothing in her delivery or sound of her voice gave away the fact that she was not only uncomfortable being on stage but was uncertain about how her paper would be received. She had carefully practiced her talk and so was able to articulate her points with a steady voice and only minor stumbles. A few minutes into her talk, however, she began wringing her hands. She did this unconsciously in between other nervous hand gestures: Wring, wring….wave at screen….wring, wring….push back hair…wring, wring….straighten blouse….wring, wring…. The audience for the most part did not "see" the hand-wringing and other fidgety gestures but sensed that Samantha was nervous and uncertain. A few people squirmed in their seats and looked at their watches, hoping it would soon be over.

I attended a conference a week ago and saw all the usual mistakes that presenters make, some of which I've talked about before here, here, and here. One issue that I've not addressed is what do you do with your hands while presenting? As my fictional example above indicates, your hand gestures can totally undermine an otherwise good speech and make the audience wish they had gone to that other talk in a competing session. I've heard people suggest clasping your hands or the podium to avoid fidgeting (the myth), but that prevents natural hand gestures, which can help you appear calm and confident.

Hand-wringing is a gesture that people engage in because it is a self-soothing behavior. Other people rock in place or jingle the change in their pockets (although I've not seen this one in years). If you tend to be a hand-wringer, then one easy solution is to hold something (the remote, for example) in one hand, which makes it more difficult to rub your hands together. However, this won't work if you fidget with whatever you are holding—another bad habit to avoid.

I know it's difficult to think about your hands and what you are doing with them while giving a talk, but paying attention to how and when you gesture can pay off. Most experts advise varying your gestures and then letting your arms fall to your sides (avoid smacking them, however). Here are a few more dos and don'ts:

1. Gesture with both hands, together and alternately, in a natural rhythm.
2. Vary how "broad" your gestures are, but don't overdo the arm-waving.
3. Avoid fidgeting with pens, laser-pointers, paper, phones, the remote, or other objects.
4. Don't touch your face, hair, or other body parts (!).
5. Don't cross your arms over your chest, clasp your hands in a "fig-leaf" posture, or keep your hands in your pockets.
6. Don't flap your hands unnecessarily; remain aware of why you are gesturing.
7. Practice gesturing in front of a mirror, particularly how it looks and feels to drop your hands at the end of a gesture.

Finally, here's a good video that shows how to manage your gestures when speaking:

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Help, My Department Requires Graduate Students to Publish a Peer-Reviewed Paper!

A colleague recently mentioned that her department is considering whether to require graduate students to have at least one paper from their dissertation or thesis research published in a peer-reviewed journal in order to receive their degree.

This is not a new idea. Such a requirement has been implemented or is being considered in a number of graduate programs in the US and elsewhere. In some cases, the requirement is different depending on the degree. Here are a couple of examples found on university websites:

"Graduates from the M.S. and Ph.D. programs are required to publish in the archival literature of their research fields. The requirement is as follows:
  • Graduation with the M.S. degree requires 1 publication in submission to a journal or conference by the time of the thesis defense.
  • Graduation with the Ph.D. degree requires 1 accepted journal publication and 1 submitted journal publication (or a 2nd paper) by the time of the dissertation defense."
"The process of bearing first author responsibility during the entire publication process from submission, through reviews and resubmission, and on to final acceptance, provides unique and valuable professional training.
To ensure that all …..students have this experience, as a requirement for graduation, each ….student must have at least one first author, peer reviewed journal article published, in press, or accepted."

As you might imagine, there is quite a bit of disagreement and debate underway about such publication requirements. One of the strongest arguments against the publication requirement is that the student has no control over the publication process and is therefore unfair. On the other side of the debate is the argument that navigating the peer-review process is a fair test of an essential skill (ability to publish in scholarly journals) and, moreover, will ensure the student graduates with at least one peer-reviewed publication. Here is a blog post that summarizes views on both sides of the debate, mostly from the student's perspective.

My view is that this is not an outrageous requirement and something any graduate student should be capable of achieving. It just requires some additional planning and preparation. I base my opinion partly on my own experience as a student. When I submitted my dissertation, one of the chapters had already been published in a peer-reviewed journal and four more were almost ready to submit (and were in better shape than most manuscripts I review today); these were submitted for publication soon after I graduated. I was also co-author on several other papers that were published or submitted during this period (I was working on several additional projects not related to my dissertation).

Was it difficult to get one paper published before graduation? No. I began writing that paper as soon as I had the data in hand; it was based on a preliminary set of experiments and an exploratory field survey that turned out sufficiently well to warrant publication on its own. My plan was to have it accepted by the time I defended. My thinking at the time was that my committee would have a difficult time failing me if I had a publication in hand—in the event I performed poorly during my defense. I also figured I would have an easier time defending my work if it had already passed peer review at a good journal (it worked; I had no questions about that chapter). I gave myself enough lead time to resubmit in case the first journal rejected the paper or required substantial revisions or additional analyses. As it turned out, that paper was accepted with minor revision on the first go-around.

Would I have done anything differently had there been a publication requirement? Possibly. I might have readied a second paper for publication to increase my chances of getting at least one accepted before graduation. I would have designed several short-term experiments that could be written up before my long-term experiments were done. I also would have started writing much earlier than I did. If I were to do it again, I would begin writing as soon as I started each experiment--sketching out the introduction and writing at least the methods and then results as they came in. No one ever advised me to do this, but I wish they had.

Do I think a publication requirement is unfair to students because they have no control over the review and publishing process? Not really. I don't agree that a student (or any author, for that matter) has no control over whether their paper gets published. While it's true an author has no control over who reviews their paper, they have quite a lot of control over how their paper fairs in the review process (see list below).

What if your department has a publication requirement? Here are ten ways that a student author can exert some control over the process and increase the chances of getting a paper published by a deadline:

1. Get Your Ducks in a Row. Plan ahead to ensure plenty of time to deal with co-author foot dragging, toxic reviewers, extensive revisions, or requirements for additional analyses. Set specific deadlines to have a first draft done, a submission date, etc. Based on those dates, plan the details of your writing project. Go over this plan with your advisor and any other authors and make sure the timing works with their schedules.

2. Get a Statistical Review. Get input or advice from a statistician to ensure that the experimental design and statistical analyses are solid and that the statistical methods are written properly. If there are reviewer criticisms related to the statistics, this same person can to help counter those criticisms, if unfounded, or help you redo the analyses, if needed.

3. Get Peer Reviews. Prior to journal submission, have your manuscript read by committee members or anyone who has a lot of publishing experience to identify potential flaws in logic or writing. Follow their advice, unless there is a good reason not to. Pay particular attention to any problem mentioned by more than one person.

4. Get an Editorial Review. Consider hiring a professional editor (or ask your advisor to) to go over your manuscript, especially if you are a non-native speaker.

5. Select the Right Journal. Carefully select an appropriate journal for your work or get advice from the committee or other professors if you are not sure. Do your homework; don't just select a journal at random or because your advisor publishes there. Match the quality/novelty of your paper with the journal and its acceptance rate. Scrutinize recent papers in your target journal and try to match their writing style, length, and organization. Avoid journals with long or inconsistent review times.

6. Follow Author Instructions. Follow the journal formatting and submission instructions to the letter. This includes not only the narrative structure and bibliography, but also figures and tables. Some journals will automatically reject a paper that does not conform.

7. Write a Good Cover Letter. Submit a carefully written cover letter explaining why your work is important and why it's appropriate for that journal (don't, however, rehash all your paper's findings).

8. Suggest Reviewers. Provide a list of appropriate reviewers and any people with a conflict of interest (ask your advisor for suggestions if you are unsure).

9. Be Proactive But Professional. Contact the journal if you do not hear anything in a reasonable period of time and ask when you can expect a decision. If the paper is accepted with revision (minor or major), don't delay. Quickly make those revisions and provide a point-by-point reconciliation for the editor to show that you've made the suggested changes; if you disagree with something, explain fully why you think the change is not needed. Be professional in your response and thank the reviewers for their input, especially if the final acceptance hinges on a second round of reviews.

10. Have a Backup Plan. Be prepared for rejection and don't panic if it happens. Have a second journal pre-selected in case the first one rejects your paper and quickly turn it around (don't waste time fuming or whining to your office mates). Take the first reviewers' comments into account when revising for resubmission or you may see those criticisms again. If possible, have a second paper in the works to double your chances of publishing by your deadline.

These suggestions won't guarantee your paper gets accepted by your defense deadline but will help you stay on track and avoid some of the reasons papers get rejected.