JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

Well people, it has been a month. And I'm sure you're all wondering (or maybe not ... you probably have better things to do, like work): Is she still perky?

For those of you who have been traveling with me this whole trip, you know it is often up one month, down into the depths of despair the next, only to become jubilant again later. Well, I think I'm close to settling (although still experiencing extreme sinusoidal shifts from time to time) on the sunnier side of the sidewalk. Check back in a month or so to see if I'm still there.

Things are still working in the lab. Jeff is happy, which means that he isn't bugging me. Ergo, I am happy.

I've told you before and I'll tell you again, data and interpretable results make life calmer yet more insane at the same time. It's really frightening how it all works:

  • Student gets interpretable data. Adviser is excited.

  • Student repeats interpretable data. Adviser is more excited.

  • Adviser says, "Hmm, let's write a paper." Student is excited.

  • Adviser says, "Wait! You need even more data!" Student is still excited. Kind of.

  • Adviser says, "We need it now." Student's excitement wanes as she realizes how much time and effort all of this work is going to take.

Anyway, all the work, effort, and moderate-to-extreme stress I've endured has been worth it. I just submitted my first paper!

It has been a very productive summer for the group, publications-wise. It may be a bit premature to say this, because not all of us have submitted our papers yet, but provided everything is accepted we should have five papers out by fall. Jeff may be new, but he's in tune with the "publish or perish" mentality that rules the world of tenure-track professors. And he's getting it done: He has published quite a few articles in the relatively short time he's been here ... although must of the credit must go, of course, to his excellent students.

The catalyst for my paper began just a short time ago ... earlier this summer, in fact. While attending the conference mentioned in Chapter 17, we were shocked and amazed to find that someone else was working on a project that is very similar to mine. We learned this before the session where I presented my poster, so needless to say there was some interest in our work. This led to a conversation with the other professor and a tentative agreement about which avenue each lab might pursue. Despite the agreement, Jeff and I both came to the conclusion that we needed to write a paper... now. You know how it works--if you get it out first, they have to cite you for the rest of their career, instead of the other way around.

Needless to say, this was sort of a "hmm ... we have some results, not everything we wanted to get, but let's get what we have out there" kind of thing. So upon returning from said conference, I went straight to work putting together a "quick" paper. When you're faced with something you've never done before, you never know how hard it's going to be until it's upon you, breathing fire in your eye. Here's what I learned from the process. (Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive primer on paper-writing, it's just my account of one person's experiences.)

Organization is key, in the early stages, at least. Procedures, data, and results--organized, culled, summarized, and repeated--form the meat of the paper. Then come the hard parts: discussion, abstract, and introduction. Once you've gotten data, depending on how interpretable it is and how consistent it is with existing literature, you have a context for the discussion. But, because data are open to interpretation, you have to make sure you know what you're talking about, or your adviser will rip it to shreds. Many people save the introduction and abstract for last; it's easier to summarize and connect when you know what it is you're actually saying.

Hopefully, you've had time to explore background information at your--um--leisure. If your project was your own invention, you're golden. But if is a continuation of another student's project, or a "here, work on this" project from your adviser, you'll probably have to do some searching to synthesize an idea of where your work fits into the world.

Reference software will make your life 2000 times easier. Some Web sites allow you to download references with abstracts, key words, and other helpful information right into the program, thus eliminating a lot of the drama that comes with bibliographies. If your adviser doesn't have reference software, demand that he or she invest in a copy for the lab to share; it shaved literally hours off my writing time.

Fortunately, throughout this "my first paper" process I had a helpful co-author, so we split tasks. If you have that good fortune, I recommend that you meet at least once each day (preferably early) to discuss and split the tasks that need to be done. This helps keep one person from getting stuck with everything, or more than one person from doing the same task.

At points I was overwhelmed by how much needed doing and how much I had to keep track of: text, format, figures, supporting information, bibliography, revisions, rinse, repeat ... but you learn to eat the elephant one bite at a time and not to try swallowing it whole.

It felt great sending in the paper, even if it was surprising to realize that months of work could be condensed into three pages of text and 10 pages of supporting material. One of the reviewers despised the paper (Was it the scientist we were competing against/cooperating with? Who knows?), and another adored it. The editor seemed interested in accepting it with some revisions, so we tweaked it and sent it off again.

This is what I thought graduate school would be like. Not all that other angst and personal drama to which I--and apparently just about all of us--are frequently subject.

Keep your fingers crossed. ...

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the , , , or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.