Help me become a better scientist
November 16, 2009 5:27 AM   Subscribe

My goal is to have a career as a successful researcher in the biological sciences; however, I do not like writing. Is my goal unobtainable?

I'm currently working on my master's degree and I've considered pursuing a PhD. Before deciding, I'd like some hive wisdom on what the future holds for me as a scientist. I'm very confident in my abilities to conduct experiments and use the proper methodology to generate results. I'm able to troubleshoot procedures and instruments, quickly become competent in new techniques, and really grok the technical aspects of whatever I'm working on. But when it comes to writing out what I've done for publishing, I falter. I feel like what I'm writing is trite. I'm not confident in my abilities to write clear, informative discussions of experiments and to correctly interpret the results. If I'm not certain that what I'm doing is being done properly, I procrastinate. When the deadline is no longer avoidable, I rush through the writing and the resulting spew is quite poor. My writing angst has me feeling like a one-trick pony.

If anyone has been in a similar position and successfully moved on, I'd like to know what steps you took to prosper. I feel that my understanding of English grammar is quite poor, and I think that may be contributing to my writing insecurities. I'm also afraid that what I put down will be construed as plagiarism. I need to know how to gain confidence in a skill that I don't really consider myself to have an aptitude for, but must do so in order to make clear my abilities that I'm really proud of. Not enjoying the writing process because I feel that I'm incapable of doing it properly is crushing me and disappointing my colleagues.
posted by Lord Force Crater to Science & Nature (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I feel that my understanding of English grammar is quite poor
That's obviously false, just based on the little bit you wrote here.
I'm also afraid that what I put down will be construed as plagiarism.
Then don't plagiarize.

You're not Nabokov, but the people reading your papers aren't looking for Lolita. They're looking for the science you've done. You're obviously capable of communicating at a reasonable level in written English.
posted by Flunkie at 5:37 AM on November 16, 2009

As Flunkie said, you can clearly write well enough to communicate, so don't worry about that. Write in the style that you have written this question (that is, straightforward). You can always add fancy language on an edit if you deem it necessary (but, other than specialized vocabulary that adds clarity for your readers, it probably isn't).

Feeling trite is pretty common. You just have to take a bit of a leap of faith that you're working on something worthwhile, if it's interesting to you it will be interesting to someone else.

Worries about accusations of plagiarism are probably more common than you think. There's a lot of stuff out there to process, and figuring out that balance of when to credit someone and when it's "common knowledge" is difficult. This is what your advisors are for. Write something up and show it to them. Also remember that peer review means if you missed something major it will come back to you with a comment. And that comment is more likely to be "you've missed/forgotten to reference so and so" or "you should look at so and so's work" than "PLAGIARISER!!! Begone from this academy for all time! Hang your head in shame!!!!"

You could also think about setting up a writing group with some fellow students. If you share your results with them in written form, you will get practice and you will also get some confidence as you see that they are interested in your results or ask you questions about them. You can do this pretty informally with a few people in your program that you trust, or more broadly depending on the type of department that it is.
posted by carmen at 6:11 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I too dislike writing up my results, feel that my scientific writing style is more workmanlike than it is flowing, and generally loathe the apparent garbage I tend to generate while working on papers. Here's a one-two punch that helped me a lot:

1. Fake deadline. Left to myself, I know I do the same "procrastinate forever, then write everything in a blaze of desperation" that you do, so I set up an earlier faux deadline, enforced by my advisor or a coauthor.

2. With the extra time left after the fake deadline, get out my battered photocopy of The Science of Scientific Writing, put it next to my paper for reference, and hack through sentence by sentence until it doesn't suck any more, or at least sucks enough less that I feel ok submitting it. I cannot recommend this article highly enough. It gives real, concrete suggestions for improving on the convoluted techno-garble that scientists tend to generate, and if it seems like it sometimes states the obvious, well, it seems like that's necessary, if my first drafts are anything to go by.

I also console myself with the fact that the fraction of my time I spend writing up results is small compared to the amount of time I get to spend in the lab. I still dislike the entire process, but the method above makes it bearable.
posted by dorque at 6:14 AM on November 16, 2009

I know there exists out there a perfectly standard scientific-article-style two-column pdf of that article, but I couldn't find it in some cursory googling around -- sorry for the multi-page link.
posted by dorque at 6:18 AM on November 16, 2009

I would add to dorque's comment:
3. You may feel that what you're stating is trite, but that's probably partially because you've been thinking about the topic for months. Your readers will be processing all that information for the first time, so you really have to step back and include lots of information that might seem completely obvious to you.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:21 AM on November 16, 2009

I wish any of the last few manuscripts I reviewed were as clearly written as this question.
posted by grouse at 7:13 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Many of the top biologists in the US speak English only as a second language. (I'm assuming you're a native speaker -- if you're not, I can't tell.)
posted by miyabo at 7:14 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I concur with grouse - from your question, you don't appear to have any issue with writing concise and accurate prose. The quality of your question is greater than the last few papers I've read in the electrical engineering realm.
posted by saeculorum at 7:30 AM on November 16, 2009

This seems like a problem of confidence or perfectionism. You've been clear and direct here. If anxiety affects your writing quality when tackling scientific papers, that's an emotional issue -- not one of skill or aptitude. Emotional issues are just as legitimate, but the solutions are different.
posted by jon1270 at 7:34 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

The writing displayed in your question is clear, concise, and gramatically correct. As a scientist, writing is very important, as you will be evaluated by your publication record, and as your career progresses, your success will be largely determined by written grant applications. Writing doesn't come naturally to everyone, and that's okay. It is a skill you gain through practice and experience, and something you should improve upon during the course of a Ph.D.- you're not expected to enter the prorgams as an expert scientific writer. I recommed looking into the Science of Scientific Writing as a guide and also try to find potential workshops/symposiums related to scientific writing- they do exist. Good luck and don't be intimidated by the writing aspect- you can do it, as long as you force yourself to.
posted by emd3737 at 8:03 AM on November 16, 2009

Replying because I went through grad school in the biological sciences and believe me, my advisor thought my writing skills were appalling (by the time I turned in anything as a final draft, she had revised it 100000 times). I also questioned (and actually still question) both my grammar skills and whether I have problems in processing language.

Believe it or not, I now write journal articles for medical journals, and most people are happy with what I write (the PI, investigators, the company paying for the paper to be written). I’ve also been asked to fix papers written by other writers and/or investigators (to make it suitable for publication).

Here are some things that really helped me improve my skills for writing journal articles:

• Before you start writing, look at a few of the top articles in your field. Don’t look at them from a science angle; look at them from a writing angle. How do they word things? How do they summarize the data? A table that lists everything/or summarizes the study endpoints is far more helpful than skipping and trying to find it throughout the paper. Use these papers as a model.

• Reread your paper for organization. Organizing the material should be part of the editing process. When I rewrote papers, that was 90% of what I did. Make it clear in the intro – what is the need for addressing your research question? Does the summary paragraph in the intro mention the previous study that led to this research question, and does it state what this study will address?

• I don’t know your biological area of research (I don’t think you mention it), but you may want to check out documents like this (CONSORT guidelines, the actual guidelines can be downloaded) – researchers discussed the type of material that should be put into any clinical trial journal article. I find it interesting that lots of papers don’t even include this info. Anyway, you may want to search to see if such documentation exists for your area of research.

• My brain just wasn’t wired for language/or this area of my education was lacking, so I did what I could to bring it up just a little bit; if you think you are similar, then this may apply to you. If you really think you need to improve your understanding of grammar, there are small things that you can do. I read/perused Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” (the book was short).I also listened to the podcast Grammar Girl – short brief discussions with ways to remember how to correctly use a particular word, etc.
posted by Wolfster at 8:34 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here's the pdf of the article Science of Scientific writing. Using "pdf" as a search term brought this link up first.
posted by Listener at 8:45 AM on November 16, 2009

From reading your question, I can't understand why you feel bad about your writing skills. Your writing is clear, concise, and grammatically correct - there's nothing to worry about there.

I'm going to speculate that maybe you are worried that your scientific writing feels stiff, pedantic, and unliterary. That's just the nature of technical writing - it's highly constrained by the need for precision and accuracy. Poetry flies right out the window when you're describing experimental setups and interpreting results. The only times I've read anything resembling "good" writing in research journals were review articles, where the author is allowed to get a little more novelistic while telling a bigger story about the development of a topic over many years. But for research papers, you're pretty much stuck with the facts and only the facts. If your papers seem very dry and formal, you're doing it right.
posted by Quietgal at 9:06 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

But for research papers, you're pretty much stuck with the facts and only the facts. If your papers seem very dry and formal, you're doing it right.

I'm not sure if I would go that far. I've read some exceptional research papers where the writing really came alive in a way that is hard to articulate or duplicate. But they are exceptional—maybe less than two percent of papers?

On the other hand, papers that leave out important details that prevent the reader from truly understanding the work or reproducing it are far too common, and this can sometimes be part and parcel of a writing style that is too informal. And this is a much worse problem than a research article being written unimaginatively. So some formality, especially in methods sections and to a great extent in results sections, is a very good thing.
posted by grouse at 9:14 AM on November 16, 2009

You get better at writing by writing. Science is no different. I wrote well (according to my mentor) when I began grad school, but by the time I finished the things I wrote as an entering grad student simply embarrass me. You will improve because of two things - feedback from others on the quality of your writing, and reading what others have written while you do literature searches.

If it helps at all, one of my good friends (the first to earn a PhD in my grad lab, I was the second) was told by our mentor that she didn't write well at all, period. My friend is now a professor at a Big 10 university. You get better, or you spend a lot of time revising things, but either way you shouldn't let your fear hold you back.

Now if you'll excuse me, I ought to be working on that grant I haven't started yet.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:20 AM on November 16, 2009

Not enjoying the writing process because I feel that I'm incapable of doing it properly is crushing me...

Not a lot of help, but I feel the same way (in the same field even). What advice can I give though? I got my MSc, I'm working on my PhD and it's still a struggle. One thing I've learned is that it's much more about the emotions surrounding writing (like the mortification I'm feeling typing out this comment) than about the actual words on the paper. I'm starting to realize that my first drafts aren't any worse than other peoples' and sometimes better (if too literary - too much novel reading) but it's still an uphill battle.

I give myself short deadlines, "Write for 20 minutes and then you can take a 10 minute break". That makes it less daunting then facing the whole big blank page. And I have to admit I bribe myself with wine when appropriate (two glasses per evening at home). It's both a reward for doing well and takes a little off my perfectionism.

Otherwise, I remind myself that school, even graduate degrees, is about learning. I don't have to be perfect (it's my mantra these days). Plus the people around me (my supervisor especially, but also my fellow students) want me to learn and to be the best biologist I can be (I hope), so they're usually willing to give me advice.

One day I hope that science writing will come easier to me, but for now I take comfort in my awesome graphs and beautiful tables (and you should see my oral presentations). Good luck.
posted by hydrobatidae at 12:28 PM on November 16, 2009

Don't edit yourself; instead, swap editing with another scientist friend. And never, ever edit while you're writing. If you free yourself of the perception that your prose has to be perfect on the first draft, you'll have an easier time getting stuff on paper (for values of "paper" that probably don't refer to actual paper).
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:52 PM on November 16, 2009

The writing is a learned skill, not a talent. Very few manuscripts are written by naturally talented writers. You've already noticed this, right?

That said, it is also true that there is a lot of writing involved in being a scientist; grant proposals in particular. So you must resign yourself to this tedious, but necessary, task. Grants are very competitive these days, and there are lots of scientists who are writing beautiful prose with novel science, but are having a hard time getting funded because of the sheer numbers of proposals out there.

You might also stop at the Master's level and work as a lab manager in a lab where they will let you do tons of science but not the writing. Getting the PhD is only going to assure that you are expected to do a heap of writing. But if that is what you really want, I'm sure you can do it. You've made it this far, so you are very motivated. Best of luck!
posted by Knowyournuts at 1:31 PM on November 17, 2009

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