Tag Archives: PhD

On writing well part 2

“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

In my previous post, I introduced an excerpt from On writing well by William Zinsser about how writing is work and we can learn to get better. What stuck with me from On writing well were his concrete tips for editing my drafts. This post contains a few extra tips for editing all of the “clutter” in my early drafts.

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds—the writer is always slightly behind…

Is there any way to recognize clutter at a glance? Here’s a device my students at Yale found helpful. I would put brackets around every component in a piece of writing that wasn’t doing useful work. Often just one word got bracketed: the unnecessary preposition appended to a verb (“order up”), or the adverb that carries the same meaning as the verb (“smile happily”), or the adjective that states a known fact (“tall skyscraper”). Often my brackets surrounded the little qualifiers that weaken any sentence they inhabit (“a bit,” “sort of”), or phrases like “in a sense,” which don’t mean anything. Sometimes my brackets surrounded an entire sentence—the one that essentially repeats what the previous sentence said, or that says something readers don’t need to know or can figure out for themselves. Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

My reason for bracketing the students’ superfluous words, instead of crossing them out, was to avoid violating their sacred prose. I wanted to leave the sentence intact for them to analyze. I was saying, “I may be wrong, but I think this can be deleted and the meaning won’t be affected. But you decide. Read the sentence without the bracketed material and see if it works.” In the early weeks of the term I handed back entire papers that were festooned with brackets. Entire paragraphs were bracketed. But soon the students learned to put mental brackets around their own clutter, and by the end of the term their papers were almost clean. Today many of those students are professional writes, and they tell me, “I still see your brackets—they’re following me through life.”

You can develop the same eye. Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

This process is work, and even experienced writers have to write many drafts that they ruthlessly edit.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time. Or the third. Keep thinking and rewriting until you say what you want to say.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well


On writing well

When I was preparing for my preliminary exam, a friend gave me a copy of the 25th anniversary edition of On writing well by William Zinsser. I read it at once, devouring it in a couple of days. It instantly became one of my favorite books and is still my favorite book about writing.

Zinsser was a journalist and published many nonfiction in his career. On writing well is aimed at all types of nonfiction writing, and while it wasn’t written solely for academics, academic writers can benefit from following his guidance. Zinsser has a growth mindset for writers, and I continue to appreciate his encouragement. If I work at writing, I can get better.

I love On writing well because it’s the writing book that inspired me and encouraged me to be aspiration about what I want to achieve from writing. In contrast, I’ve found the books I’ve read about academic writing—some of which are excellent—to be more transactional in focus.

I have included an excerpt below about the importance of writing frequently and about the growth that will happen if we write on a regular basis.

You learn to write by writing. It’s a truism, but what makes it a truism is that it’s true. The only way to learn to write is to force yourself to produce a certain number of words on a regular basis.

If you went to work for a newspaper that required you to write two or three articles every day, you would be a better writer after six months. You wouldn’t necessarily be writing well—your style might still be full of clutter and clichés. But you would be exercising your powers of putting the English language on paper, gaining confidence and identifying the most common problems.

All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. It may be a problem of where to obtain the facts or how to organize the material. It may be a problem of approach or attitude, tone or style. Whatever it is, it has to be confronted and solved. Sometimes you will despair of finding the right solution—or any solution. You’ll think, “If I live to be ninety I’ll never get out of this mess.” I’ve often thought it myself. But when I finally do solve the problem it’s because I’m like a surgeon remove his 500th appendix; I’ve been there before.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well

how to write about operations research

In my lab meeting this month, we discussed writing operations research publications. We read How to Write About Operations Research by Gerald G. Brown at the Naval Postgraduate School, a fabulous guide for writing technical publications in the field of operations research written in 2004. The entire paper is worth reading and discussing. The paper starts by introducing a “grand, unified design for any OR publication.”

There are five simple, essential questions you must answer in your publication, preferably in this order:
1) What is the problem?
2) Why is this problem important?
3) How will this problem be solved without your help?
4) What are you doing to solve this problem?
5) How will we know when you have succeeded?

The paper introduces a series of writing recommendations, which we discussed by listing our favorite and least favorite recommendations. My two favorites are ones that I often tell students:

  • Start each paragraph with a topic sentence.
  • Make sure that just reading your paragraph-by-paragraph topic sentences conveys all of your publication.

I also like these three recommendations:

  • Use active voice
  • Use present tense
  • Work at it

Afterward, as a group we brainstormed recommendations that we felt were missing from the list. Here is what we came up with:

  • Read your writing out loud as you edit.
  • Use inclusive and gender neutral language.
  • Describe all tables and figures in the text, i.e., do not just refer to the tables and figures.
  • Be consistent with terminology.

What are your favorite writing tips?


How to use the title “Dr.” in academia: possible best practices

I was upset to read the Wall Street Journal op/ed entitled, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D. Jill Biden should think about dropping the honorific, which feels fraudulent, even comic.” The op/ed was upsetting, because it suggested that anyone who has earned a degree that comes with the title of “Dr., such as those with a PhD or Ed.D., should not use their titles for degrees they earned.

This is concerning because research has shown that women doctors are less likely to be called by their titles then men, almost half of Black and Latina professors report having been mistaken for janitorial staff, and women and BIPOC professors routinely have their credentials ignored. Women over-invest in credentials, in part because research has shown that women need more credentials than men to be considered for awards and promotions.

The problem is not with Dr. Biden, it is with the cultural construct of expertise, who is presumed to have it, and who is given permission to wield the terms of power that signify it. In dominant culture, the construct of “expert” is based on false hierarchies – crafted to exclude the vast majority of the world’s knowledge (including the expertise of women and people of color).

Katie Orenstein from the twitter thread below about the WSJ article.

Mis-titling and de-titling professors is an equity issue. I gave some thought as to how to address this issue. I have a few suggestions below that are based on my experiences.

Here is some background. I used to ask students in my research group to use my title and last name. Students in other research groups often called me by my first name without my permission, and I found it strange that they addressed me in a casual way even after hearing the students in my research group address me in a formal way. There seemed to be two causes. (1) Students on a first name basis with their advisors and possibly other professors incorrectly assume that all professors let students call them by their first name. (2) Other professors, with whom I am on a first name basis, refer to me using only my first name in front of other students, which gives the students “permission” to call me by my first name. But I did not given permission. The students’ advisors in these situations have almost entirely been male, which possibly reflects societal constructs of power. Men inadvertently signal to students when it is acceptable to de-title and mis-title others, and these signals carry a lot of weight, especially if the person in question is a woman and/or is BIPOC. It seems that is was worth explicitly addressing these two mechanisms to reduce the chances that other professors are not mis-titled or de-titled.

I now ask students in my research group to call me by my first name. I wanted to make sure that all students knew what to call me while also not de-titling other professors, since new students have joined my group. In this conversation, I was surprised that not everyone knew about this rule, so I was glad we revisited this so I could make corrections and make sure that no one feels singled out.

I discussed the article with the students in my lab and this is what I suggest.

  1. On a regular basis, remind all students how you would like to be addressed in a group meeting , such as when new students join the lab. This can also be included in a lab compact.
  2. Use professors’ titles (Professor or Dr.) in informal settings unless they say otherwise. If they have given you permission to call them by their first name, it is still appropriate to sometimes use their titles, such as when there are other professors or students in a conversation.
  3. Use professors’ titles in formal settings, such as when introducing a speaker or in a committee meeting.
  4. When in doubt, ask someone what they want to be called.

What else is missing from this list?

In full disclosure, I have not always followed these rules in practice, and I will make a conscious effort to do better. I am a work in progress. I try to learn and make adjustments on a regular basis for continuous improvement.

For more reading, read my post about changing my name:


PhD development seminar: Time management and work-life balance

I am teaching a PhD development seminar for first year PhD students in industrial engineering and related disciplines. The purpose of this course is to prepare students for the dissertation research in industrial and systems engineering. The course helps set expectations, introduces campus resources to students, and creates a cohort of student to connect students with their peers.

Last week, a student panel composed of three senior PhD students discussed time management and work-life balance. The panelists were fantastic. Below are some highlights from the panel.

I am creating a series of blog posts featuring some of the classes from the semester. Those, along with previous PhD related posts, are tagged with the “PhD support” tag.

Other posts in this series:


PhD development seminar: first steps in research

Last year, I developed a new PhD development seminar for first year PhD students in industrial engineering and related disciplines.

The purpose of this course is to prepare students for the dissertation research in industrial and systems engineering. The main focus is on initial steps and skills required to get started with research. Topics include understanding degree requirements, first steps in research, conducting a literature review, working with citation managers, time management, research ethics, data management, technical writing, and research organization. I invite a number of guest speakers to class sessions to introduce topics, connect students with campus resources, and answer questions.

By the end of the semester: each student should achieve these learning outcomes

  • Understand requirements for a PhD in Industrial Engineering or other PhD program.
  • Understand expectations for a dissertation and how to get started with research.
  • Understand what campus resources are available for writing, finding resources at the library, mental health, and others.
  • Understand research concepts such as research safety, research ethics, time management principles, setting expectations, meeting milestones, and plagiarism.

The course helps set expectations, introduces campus resources to students, and creates a cohort of student to connect students with their peers.

I am again offering the course in Fall 2020 but in a virtual format. So far, we are off to a great start. I will create a series of blog posts featuring some of the classes from the semester. Those, along with previous PhD related posts, are tagged with the “PhD support” tag.

First steps in research

This week’s class was about first steps in research, where two professors discussed how they helped new PhD students started on research. Professors Vicki Bier and Doug Wiegmann came to class and were wonderful. Some of their terrific advice was captured in my tweetstorm below.

Stay tuned for more blog posts about the course.


just write, damn it: the dissertation edition

One of my recent blog posts entitled “just write, damn it” got a lot of hits and positive feedback. All the feedback was for just writing and none was in favor of planning first. I was surprised that my methodological and analytical readers preferred to cannonball into writing without a lot of planning.

Someone told me about an approach to writing a dissertation that was somewhere in between just writing willy nilly and planning. It’s called the One Draft PhD Dissertation [pdf] by John Carlis, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Minnesota. His approach is to sketch a blueprint of a dissertation by planning what will be in each paragraph and then jump in and write each of those paragraphs. He writes:

What’s my story? While writing my dissertation and, at the same time, working as a professor (yes, it was stressful), several streams of thought happily converged. I read lots about writing, and was particularly struck by the forward to the John McPhee Reader, which described his disciplined, design-before-write way of work. I read Richard Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, which has this message that translates to writing: teaching (writing) is about them, the students (readers), not the teacher (author). I taught software development using Yourdon and Constantine’s “Structured Development” (Addison-Wesley, 1975). Convergence began when the strong parallels in their content struck me. By then I already believed that software should be designed and not hacked, and, coming to the same conclusion about a dissertation, I decided to try to transfer software notions to writing. Since a paragraph is a unit of development, like a software procedure, I, following McPhee, chose to design everything down to the paragraph topic sentence level before writing. And it worked!

The one draft dissertation is a 5 step process:

  1. Believe you can do it.
  2. Understand that the purpose of a dissertation is to defend your claimed contributions to your field.
  3. Write for the right audience. Start by sketching a blueprint by writing for yourself then do the formal writing for your committee.
  4. Acquire draft writing skills (paragraph topic sentences, story telling, and logic to tie paragraphs together to tell your story)
  5. Design a dissertation.

What does “draft” mean? Here a draft is a completed unit, something that you give to others for review. I do not consider small scale revising, say editing within a paragraph while leaving the structure alone, the same as re-drafting. Do not misunderstand; “one draft” does not mean that you just start from a blank slate with final words of truth and beauty rolling off your fingertips. No, producing a dissertation is work, but it is merely work, not some mystical thing… You should believe that you can produce a one-draft dissertation, because focusing on contributions allows you to first choose vocabulary, craft figures, and grow a story tree down to paragraph topic sentences, and to then, for an audience of other experts, draft, one at a time, what you have the skill to draft, namely, paragraphs.

This approach has been tested on his students. It’s similar to one of my writer’s block antidotes. When I’ve struggled with writing something new, I often dive in and plan my story paragraph by paragraph by writing topic sentences, much like in the One Draft Dissertation. It’s planning, but it feels like another way to jump in and write. Just write topic sentences, damn it.

Finally, here is the average length of a dissertation by field, courtesy of beckmw.wordpress.com.


Thinking about getting a PhD? Here are some good resources.

Part of my job is to help students figure out if grad school is for them. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a few great resources for students thinking about a PhD. Here are some of my favorites.

Here is a link to the first of a series of ten blog posts by Jean Yang, who decided to leave Google to attend grad school in CS at MIT.

Philip Guo released an e-book on the PhD experience called The PhD Grind and has a 45 minute lecture on why to consider a PhD in CS. He has a bunch of other good posts about academic life as both a student and an assistant professor. He has a post specifically on applying to grad school.

Tim Hopper has a great series about whether one should consider a PhD in a technical field. I like this series because a broad range of people participated and not everyone encourages a PhD.

Chris Chamber’s blog post called “Tough Love: an insensitive guide to thriving in your PhD” has a lot of frank advice for determining whether a PhD is for you.

Below is a slideshare presentation I put together for the VCU math club a few years ago, since several seniors were planning to apply to graduate programs.

This is a woefully incomplete list, but I don’t want to delay posting it any longer. What other useful resources are out there?


thoughts on a PhD development course, part 1

I am teaching a 1 credit hour PhD development course for industrial and systems engineering students at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I am teaching the course with librarian Ryan Schryver, who is using the course to replace his office hours that students never came to. He found that students were not asking the questions that they needed to ask. Additionally, the department has a goal of exposing students to research and people across the department, but we have found that our students work in their labs with few interactions with students in operations research, manufacturing, human factors, and/or healthcare (our four department areas).

This course will fill these gaps. Our syllabus includes a variety of topics for students in their first 2-3 years, from understanding department and university policies to choosing a dissertation topic, technical writing, graphics, research organization, good programming habits, and prelims. We have a bunch of guest speakers plus me. I love hearing my colleagues’ take on things.

Student feedback thus far has been fantastic. I have urged the students to take ownership, and they seem interested in getting what they need from this course, not just in attending to get credit.

My favorite day thus far has been the PhD student panel, where PhD students asked questions to other PhD students. The questions came from all over the place, and the panelists were open to being quite honest about the process and the occasional struggles. Ryan and I knew it was successful when we had those unfiltered moments. Here are a few tweets from the panel.

twitter-phd1twitter-phd2twitter-ph3twitter-phd4twitter-phd5

Our guest speaker from the writing center, had some really good advice about the writing process:

twitter-phd6

Ryan talked about copyright and fair use, and he filled his talk with many pieces of useful information:

twitter-phd7

I’ll have a recap slide on this course at the end of the semester. In the mean time, please share advice and observations from similar courses you have taken so I can revise and improve the experience.

Related posts:


should you do a PhD?

Tim Hopper of the Stigler Diet has a wonderful series about whether to do a PhD in a STEM field [Link]. In each blog post in the series, somesone (usually a PhD) shells out some advice. There is a good mix of academia and industry in his series. My post is here. Mine is the only post with a picture in it.

I read through some of the posts and they are delightful. I highly recommend Tim’s blog series to college seniors who are thinking about grad school.

Below is a slideshare presentation I put together for the VCU math club for seniors who were planning to apply to graduate programs.