Why should you always finish your projects?

Having said in my last blog post that starting a project was the most important step, there is a step that is nearly as important. That step is finishing a project.

Why is finishing a project so important?

Finishing a project is important for a number of reasons and some of these are listed below.

  1. If you do not finish you cannot ‘ship’ the work, i.e. it is wasted effort
  2. You only know how successful something has been when it is finished
  3. You do not get to be smug about how you completed something
  4. If it is important it will nag at you until it is done

So how do I ensure I finish projects?

The best way I have found is to break the project down into small manageable chunks that can be ticked off one by one until the project is complete. This way I get a series of small victories to help keep me motivated and can easily determine my progress through a project. Invariably there will be changes to original plans and this should be reflected in timelines and goals at later stages.

For example, for the past month I have been trying to draw a quick sketch of something that I have seen discarded on the street and post it on my Instagram feed. This way I have motivated myself to do some sketching (albeit extremely quick sketches) and each additional day completed encourages me not to fail at the next day. I do not want to break the chain. This is suggested in one of Austin Kleon’s books (I think it might be Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered which is well worth a read). It is alos inspired by Lisa Congdon who has spoken about doing daily self-initiated projects to learn new skills and help create something to show (her books Whatever You Are, Be a Good One: 100 Inspirational Quotations Hand-Lettered by Lisa Congdon is an excellent example of one of these ‘passion projects’. She also wrote Art Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist which is very good).

What if I discover I do not want to finish a project?

I would suggest that you try to finish it to some degree as it might be that you are having a dip in your motivation and that by continuing you may both learn something and also become re-interested in the work. I find this often happens after the initial creative work is complete and it is time to revise and edit a piece of writing. This can be tedious at times, however, perseverance is the key and once this is done there is the excitement of the final push for completion and the joy of seeing the final piece of work.

There may be times when you cannot bear to continue with something and if you have tried several times to complete it, it might be necessary to put it away for a while and do something else, so you can come back to it later re-invigorated. If this does not work you could try to get someone else to input as this can breathe life back into a project. If this fails and you are set on ditching the work then you should try to complete the latest step you are on and get it into a state where it can hibernate. That way if you want to come back to it, it will be there waiting for you.

What should happen after the search is complete, should we immediately start writing the systematic review?

Once you have done the first version of the search, you may find that you have too many results or not many results at all.

Too many results?

If you have too many results it is likely that your search was too broad and that rather than manually checking each reference, using the filters provided by the search engines could help refine the results. Some possibilities for refining the search are to limit it to a specific language (English, for example), or to just searching the abstract and title, rather than the full text.

Too few results?

This might be what you expected and could be the basis for the systematic review, highlighting the need for more studies in a particular area. However, you may want to broaden your search if you feel that not all relevant manuscripts have been captured. This could be done by including additional keywords, or removing limits (e.g. looking for all studies and not just those in humans).

What if the number of results seems fine?

Once you are happy that the search has captured all the appropriate results, you will want to save a list of the results, including references, title and abstract, as well as recording the initial number of results found. You will need to keep track of this for the PRISMA flowchart. These results should then be distributed to the individuals that have been allocated as reviewers and they should review each abstract and decide whether it meets the inclusion criteria defined for the review. These criteria should have been defined before the search and it is important that both reviewers use them. The reason why each abstract is rejected should also be recorded. This can be done according to the PICOS, with abstracts rejected according to not containing appropriate participants, intervention, comparator, outcome or setting, or for another reason which should be recorded.

In a perfect world both reviewers will select the same abstracts at this stage, however, if they do not, an additional reviewer should arbitrate whether the abstract should be kept. If there is confusion, the abstract should be kept, for full text review (the next step).

After the abstracts have been filtered, should we start writing?

No. You will want to get the full version of each reference and these will also need to be reviewed, in a similar manner to the abstracts, to ensure that no inappropriate references are included. At this stage, you can note any manuscripts in the references that also look appropriate for the systematic review. This will enable you to check that they have been included and if not they can be added (and noted on the PRISMA flowchart).

This process of filtering can be long and tedious, however, it should enable all the relevant literature for the systematic review to be identified. It is at this stage that the writing can commence!

Why should you write less in your presentations?

For work I sometimes get to go to conferences and see many presentations in a few short days. However, when I go to these presentations I often find that everything I need to know is written on the slides and that I do not need to listen to the speaker to fully understand what is being discussed. When this happens I tend to read ahead on the slide and might potentially miss valuable information that is spoken whilst doing so, as well as getting a bit bored whilst waiting for the next slide to appear. I expect that many of you have also experienced this and when you read about presentation technique you frequently get to hear the phrase ‘death by PowerPoint’ which relates to this phenomenon.

What can you do to avoid this?

It might seem drastic, but the way to avoid this trap is to put significantly less text on your slides. Rather than detailing your objective on a slide you could include a prompt (e.g. ‘What was the objective?’) that you would then talk around, or you could include a figure or table but not your thoughts on the table. This way people will have to listen to what you have to say to be able to fully understand what is being presented. An extreme version of this is the Takahashi method where only a single word or short phrase is on each slide to act as a prompt, forcing the speaker to talk about what they are doing and engage with the audience. The Lessig method is similar.

But what if I forget what I am talking about?

It is better to have notes and to practice your presentation to make it as smooth as possible and have it memorable, rather than having a boring presentation. People will forgive you glancing at your notes to remind yourself of a pertinent point and will feel more engaged. These can be included as slide notes in PowerPoint or written separately as a text document.

Where can I find out more about making my presentations better?

I found the book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (Voices That Matter) by Garr Reynolds to be extremely informative, and their is a blog by the author this book that is good. It can be found here.

Also slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations: The Art and Science of Presentation Design by Nancy Duarte is excellent. There is a free multimedia version of her book Resonate online which is about visual storytelling to improve presentations.

Why you should publish in many venues

Many venues should not mean many journals. Journals are only one possible venue for your work and by limiting yourself to them you limit the potential reach of your work. Other scientific outlets are conferences/congresses, presentations to universities and societies, scientific blogs and magazines. If you are planning on publishing your work then one potential route would be to present it at a conference, either as a poster or an oral presentation, before writing it up for a journal article. Once the work has been presented at a conference it can become part of a talk to give at other universities or societies, and this talk once it has been given several times could be written up either as a review of the work of your lab for submission to a journal or magazine, or published on a blog.

By presenting the work in these different ways, a number of different audiences can be reached and introduced to your work. They can also be excellent as opportunities to network and grow your circle of associates, possibly helping to bring about collaborations and secure funding. I would therefore suggest that if you are early in your career you should be trying to get your work seen and heard of. You might not be able to be invited to present your work to another university or interested group. However, you should be submitting your work, once it has reached sufficient quantity and quality, to congresses, or offering to talk about your work to undergraduates or other research groups you know. These might also have the added benefit of providing new thoughts and ideas on your work from people with fresh perspectives, as well as identifying any holes that need to be looked into.

Another way to be able to talk about your research with more people is to volunteer for societies and attend local interest group meetings. This may bring you into contact with influential people you will not meet in any other way.

How knowing your target audience could improve your writing

Sometimes when you read a scientific article you might feel that the authors are belittling you or aiming way to high, and you will put down the article and find something else to read. When this happens, the first thing I tend to consider is whether I am the target audience for that particular piece of writing. If I am, it might be that the authors had not decided on a target audience when it was written or have targeted the wrong publication venue, or it might just be that I am particularly interested or uninterested in that subject and so either no more or less than might be expected.

Why am I telling you this?

When we write, we often write to express ourselves and our thoughts and ideas on a topic, writing what interests us and not thinking about the person who will eventually read it. This is like designing a pair of gloves that fits us exactly and trying to market it as being suitable for everybody. We must remember that the point of scientific writing, if we aim to get it published, is for it to be read and thus spread our ideas, not solely for the sake of writing.

What should be done to help write appropriately for the audience?

Before you write your first outline, you should decide who will be your audience; not in a vague manner, for example saying anyone who is interested in hand care, but as precisely as possible, for example hospital hand care specialists. Once this audience has been identified you want to know what level of knowledge they will have on this topic. In the example, hospital specialists will likely already have a high level of knowledge and so would not want to have the basics of hand care told to them. This will make them assume the article is not for them and reduce the likelihood of them reading it. So in this case you could start the article at a high level, covering only the most pertinent points for the topic being discussed.

On the other hand, if your audience is hand care trainees you will want to include the basics, as you cannot assume that all trainees will have the requisite basic knowledge to make sense of the article. If the basics are missing then you could place a barrier in front of much of your audience.

Using ‘personas’

In certain industries, the target audience is identified and idealized ‘personas’ are created to emphasise key aspects that need to be catered for. A well-known version of these is the broad terms given to people born at different times or target voter populations during elections (e.g. Mondeo Man). This allows broad generalizations to be made to highlight differences between generations and allow the average member of this group to be targeted, hopefully allowing the maximum proportion of this group to be successfully reached.

I would not suggest that you should create these personas but they should serve to remind us that a target audience will often have a lot in common and this can be catered for. However, if we write from the beginning with our audience in mind then our writing is more likely to be relevant, and read, by the people we want it to reach.

Why you cannot succeed unless you are ready to fail

When I was younger I didn’t enjoy trying new things and meeting new people (truth be told I still don’t enjoy this), so I didn’t join clubs that I might have enjoyed or speak to people I did not know. I lived my life doing the things I knew and sticking to them. I was afraid that I would try something and fail or make a fool of myself, and this even extended into my work during my PhD. I was loathe to try new techniques because I would have to admit I didn’t know what to do and ask for help. However, when I eventually did learn a new technique it might not work for what I was doing at that time, but could open up new avenues of research to explore and discoveries to make. I shied away from using HPLC and LCMS for these reasons and in the end they were what helped me complete my PhD.

What did I learn from this?

In the end I looked back at what I was doing and realised what I was missing out on; how this fear had made my life less than it could have been. I decided that I would try new things and be prepared to fail. I might not make a big impression, but am willing to approach people at conferences and try to start conversations, or learn a new skill that might help my work. By spending my life not trying things, I learned that even not trying I might fail as I have not even had a go. This new approach to life is not easy as I regularly fall back on old habits of avoidance, I am often the person standing on his own in a big group of people. It is at these times that I have to remind myself every day of the things I have accomplished by trying more things. I have worked with interesting people and learned new skills, and my life feels fuller because of this.

What should you do?

So my advice would be to put yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new. It does not have to be a large step, it might just be saying hello to someone whilst in the queue to get coffee or visiting a next door lab or office to introduce yourself. These little steps will steadily grow your comfort zone and each little success or failure will teach you something, even if it isn’t what you thought it would be.

Don’t just write, make sure you read as well

One of my favourite quotes about writing comes from Austin Kleon who says:

“In every undergraduate creative writing workshop I was part of, there was that one kid who said, ‘I like to write, but I don’t really like to read,’ and it was evident right away that you could pretty much write that kid off completely.”

This is because if we write without reading first we cannot build upon the work of others and we cannot learn from people who have published before. This should be self-evident but often when we are researching and experimenting, we will do a search to help us overcome an issue and will skim through to locate what is hopefully the answer. You might not fully read the introduction or conclusions, not really caring for the context or analysis for someone else.  We do not have time to read each article in depth and have time for research, for writing, for lecturing, for mentoring and for a life outside the research institute. Yet here I am suggesting that you should be reading more in our already packed lives.

If we do not want to learn and develop then this is not something that you should commit to, however, if you do there is always time to be found, even if it is just 15 minutes a day, possibly whilst sitting on the toilet. To improve you should read great writing; this does not have to be a ‘classic’ like Crime and Punishment, but should be something relevant. I would suggest that as writing up research is akin to non-fiction writing, it can be beneficial to read scientific non-fiction books, which can also provide ideas for research or help develop new ways of thinking. This can be science magazines, books or blogs.

Some suggestions for things to read

However, we shouldn’t limit ourselves, great writing is great writing and we can always learn something from it, hopefully, how to tell the best stories possible.

Austin Kleon – http://tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/33792291289