My blog sucks: my journalism school application

This week I applied ta a 2-week science journalism summer school. The focus of the summer school includes “experimenting with new forms of scientific storytelling”. Part of the application included a letter of intent, and as I wrote it, it started to turn into more of a personal manifesto. Here it is, more or less, for those who are interested.

My name is Adam Fortais and I would like to be considered for acceptance into the Project Futures 3 program. I am interested in pursuing a career in science journalism, but am concerned that current forms of journalism are not ideal in reaching the public.

 

My interest in scientific communication was first motivated by the goal of inspiring the next generation of scientists. By showing them that cutting edge research can be done by anyone, I hoped to inspire young students to increase their own scientific literacy and interest in pursuing a career in STEM. However, through my outreach work, I realized that what goes into the job of “scientist” is not very well understood by young students.

 

I think the lack of understanding of what a scientist does is because many people don’t actually know any scientists (for example; the CBC recently ran a story which claimed nearly half of all Canadians couldn’t name a single female scientist). When I was young, the careers I imagine myself doing were the ones that I could actually imagine. Having a picture of someone with a career I admired allowed me to express my interest and find guidance toward pursuing that career.

 

To think every young student will be able to meet and interact with a scientist is naive – many scientists are located in metropolitan areas, not to mention the fact that there simply aren’t that many scientists per capita. These factors limit how many young students will ever get to meet a scientist to a small, (and demographically biased) group. For this reason, I began considering how to reach students indirectly.

 

Aside from directly interacting with a scientist early on, I was influenced by media portrayals of scientists and the opinions of my family. It’s here, within social circles and the media, that I believe the majority of people’s scientific understanding comes from. Yet, through my blogging and outreach activities I have begun to see a fundamental issue with these forms of media – they seem to only reach those who look for it. In a sense, we are “preaching to the choir”, and I think this is dangerous.

 

I’m worried that when a detachment occurs between a source of authority and the general population, distrust develops. Maybe this is the origin of climate change denial or the anti-vaccine movement. Of this, I can only speculate. However what I can say, is that current scientific journalism leaves many people behind. Podcasts have helped increase access to science, but are even still biased to the people who look for such a thing, and have the ability to consume this type of media. I think the way we involve the public in research needs to be rethought, and I think this begins with us.

 

Thank you for your consideration,

Adam Fortais, M.Sc

 

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My first social media gig pt.2

In October I took over the social media campaign of McMaster’s Researchers’ Night. In this post I’d like to share the Facebook posts and the Tweets I paired with the posts. For a full discussion on my strategy and the things I learned, click here.

 

 

Self interview: Career planning

I was recently the subject of an interview for a social media campaign about the people in the Faculty of Science. I will be featured as one for the graduate students that make up the Physics&Astronomy department. During the interview I was forced to think about myself, my motivations, and what I hope to do in the future. The interview ended and I found myself unusually keen on continuing this self exploration, particularly regarding what I hope to do when I graduate. The interview format seemed particularly useful for collecting my thoughts in a systematic way, so I decided to interview myself.

____________

The following is a transcript of an interview with Adam Fortais. The interview took place on January 22nd in an undisclosed location. 

_____________

Adam (A): What the hell… where am…

Interviewer (I): We will be asking the questions.

A: Who is “we”, and jeeze, can you get that light out of my face?

I: State your name, age, and occupation.

null

A: Ok ok. Adam Fortais, 27, graduate student in physics at McMaster.

I: Do you like it?

A: Grad school? … yes…?

I: Are you unsure?

A: No! No, I like it! This is just very strange… Yeah, I like grad school just fine. I mean, it’s not where I want to be forever, but it’s definitely good for now.

I: Where do you want to be then, in say, five years?

A: Is this some sort of interview?

I: Answer the question.

A: I don’t know! I guess I assumed I would figure that out by ruling out things I don’t want to do, but the closer I get to graduating, the more options there seem to be.

I: What have you ruled out, then?

A: I think I can say that I don’t intend on pursuing my own academic research group. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to work at a university, I just don’t think I want to run a research program in academia.

I: Are you concerned getting a PhD in physics is only going to prepare you for that job though?

A: A little bit, sure. But I have been trying to diversify and get a bit more experience outside of standard academic work.

I: Elaborate.

A: Sure, but seriously, is this light in my face really necessary?

I: …

A: Fine. Well, I started looking into what being a science journalist entails. That seems pretty attractive. So this year I started blogging again. I’ve kind of always kept a blog, but I never thought about it as anything that would be useful professionally.

I: And how have you been using it professionally?

A: This was more so last summer, but I started writing some general interest science articles. I researched something I thought would demonstrate some interesting science, and tried to present the information for a non-scientific audience. However, I started to recognize this was less science journalism and more #ScienceCommunication.

I: I believe you mean “hashtag”, and not “pound sign”.

A: You do, do you?

I: Ye… Tell me what you think #ScienceCommunication is.

A: So… Yeah, good question. I

I: Thank you.

A: … yeah. So it’s tough to pin down because I think it covers a lot of different things. I think I would start by pointing out some people I’d consider science communicators. People like Neil Degrasse Tyson, Chris Hadfield, Al Gore, or Bill Nye – these are science communicators. That might give you a sense of what #SciComm is, but it doesn’t really answer the question. And I think the fact that it’s hard to pin down is kind of exciting!

I: Hard to pin down because it’s not really a job.

A: Right.

I: Because it’s more like a component of different jobs?

A: Right. I think.

I: Ok, fine. So what do you picture a job involving #scicomm looking like?

A: Good question!

I: Thank you.

A: … well that’s just it. I know what I want my job to involve but I don’t really know what that job is.

I: List the qualities you want it to have.

A: I want to constantly be learning. I think I could dig in and find almost anything interesting, but I also value being able to learn about a wide range of things. I know people won’t pay me to go around learning things, I know I have to be able to package what I learn in some way and sell it. So I guess what I want is to a) acquire lots of diverse knowledge, and b) package this information into a useful format for others.

I: So you want to do research, but not too much research, and also teach, but not teach the same thing over and over.

A: Yes!

I: This sounds like a consultant or a science adviser. Maybe for government or something.

A: Or a podcaster!

I: Or a journalist for a news outlet.

A: Or a youtube star!

I: …

IMG_20180304_094042.jpg

A: I am kidding. But a content creator, like someone who works on podcasts and videos. That could be cool! It certainly would scratch my creative “itch”.

I: Yes, but you should really consider job security. Journalism is already fairly risky, you’ll likely be working freelance mostly, which means you probably aren’t looking at any sort of benefits or a steady paycheck. But hey, tell me about this “itch”.

A: Who are yah’, my doctah? Ba-dum

I: Tsh. Answer the question.

A: Yeah! I do all sorts of creative stuff! I like music and art. I’ve been doing some creative writing. I guess you could call me a polymath or renaissance man!

I: Don’t ever say that to anyone, ever again.

A: Yeah, it felt pretty gross coming out of my mouth. None of this leaves this room, right?

I: …

A: Well, from all the non-technical writing and reading I did in 2018, I’ve really been getting joy out of creative writing. I’ve been having fun working on some short stories and poetry and photo-zines.

I: Can I see some of your work?

A: This sort of counts, doesn’t it?

I: So what, are you saying you might also want to leave science to become a writer?

A: No, no, I am very satisfied having creative writing as a hobby, but I do feel it has helped me with crafting narratives. I think that’s an important part of journalism or communicating ideas in an interesting way.

I: Sure, makes sense.

A: Hey, so, I’d really like to know who you are, where I am, and what’s the deal with all of this?

I: Wouldn’t we all.

A: Hey! Wait, come back! I didn’t get to tell you about my idea for a cafe/bar/makerspace/bike-record-print shop! I’m pretty serious about it! I think it would be really cool!

______________

At this point in the tape, a door opens and closes, as if the interrogator has left the room. Adam calls out, asking if there is anyone in the room, and if he can leave. After approximately two minutes of silence, the lamp clicks off and Adam presumably sits quietly in the dark room. The rest of the tape consists of gentle breathing and the occasional cough.

My first social media gig

This article was originally published at macscicomm.wordpress.com . 

 

Last month I was invited to take on the role of Social Media Liaison for one of McMaster’s premier science outreach events, Researchers’ Night. This was a great opportunity for me to try designing and implementing a social media advertising campaign – a skill that seems very valuable for an aspiring science communicator. As such, I thought that it may be valuable for me to share and reflect on my experience.

While the details of the research presented is very interesting, I will focus exclusively on the social media and communication aspects leading up to the evening. You can follow this link to see the posts I made for the Facebook page, this link to see the Twitter posts, and for a guide on how to photograph an event… you may wish to go elsewhere (haha…)

The Event

Researchers’ Night is an annual event which gives the Hamilton community an opportunity to learn about some of the work being done at McMaster, and to meet the smart people who do that work. The event is held like an interactive poster session, or as I began describing it, an adult science fair (no, not an adult science fair, I mean the presenters are adults). Ten researchers were invited to set up small exhibits and tell visitors about the work they do in an open-format, casual atmosphere. The event was held at the McMaster Innovation Center which featured a wide-open space for all of the presenters to set up, as well as some beautiful, dramatic lighting.

The event was preceded by a talk by a well-known keynote speaker before attendees were invited to explore the various exhibits.

Getting the gig

I think this may be the most useful aspect of the experience to unpack and learn from. Like many things in life, real hands-on experience is crucial for developing as a professional communicator. Unfortunately, as useful as this information could be, I don’t have much very much insight to share on how to obtain offers like this. However, I can present you with some facts.

Generally speaking, it was the network I developed through volunteering at other similar events and my activity on social media that put me in a position to receive this offer. Particular to this event, my volunteering with McMaster-related events played a role in being visible within the McMaster community. For example, some graduate students in my department started a science+pub night in Hamilton which I have been helping organize. My work for this group includes applying for a grant to run the event (which required me meeting the granting agency face-to-face), and advertising (online and around town). Making contact with (and especially social-media-tagging) the people and groups you want to work for is a great way to make yourself known to the ones who can give you a position.

Summary

  1. Network
  2. Find ways to be seen (volunteer, be present on social media)
  3. Tag people
  4. Make your desires known to everyone (people have wide and diverse networks, you never know who can help you land a job)

Job description

When I was approached for this job, the event was one week away and a social media presence was already in place. This included a Facebook page for both Researchers’ Night the organization, and Researchers’ Night the event, as well as a Twitter account. Advertising had begun with general information about the night (including a beautiful video), and two “featured researcher” articles.

With one week to go, I was asked to take over the online advertising on Facebook and Twitter leading into the event. I was also invited to photograph the event, and if we could organize it in time, do an Instagram take-over of the McMaster account.

Before leaving my first and only meeting with the organizer, I made sure I was absolutely clear on what was expected from the advertising campaign (“probably one post a day, and whatever you think is best”), how the event was going to run (see above), who to contact if I have more questions, and all relevant details (account names and passwords, times, locations, etc) such that I could do the work even if my contact were to disappear. I also made a point of describing and receiving confirmation that what I (very generally) planned to do with the advertising campaign was what the coordinator wanted.

Summary

  1. Obtain all details about the job
    1. What is expected
    2. Account details (Facebook, Twitter, etc)
    3. Time and location of event
    4. Who to contact with questions
  2. What has already been done (in this case…)
    1. Social media accounts exist
    2. Facebook event made
    3. General advertising about the event (including video) posted and promoted
    4. 2/10 researchers featured individually
  3. Pitch a general strategy and verify this is acceptable

Strategy

My goal was to convince as many people to attend the event as possible. With this in mind, and only one week until the event, I decided I would do my best to pick the low-hanging fruit. By this, I mean I wanted these ads to be seen by people who are already interested in the subject matter and would need little to no convincing that the event would be interesting. In my mind, this included local college and university students, STEM professionals, and the friends and family of the invited presenters.

I based my core strategy around the following phenomenon:

Imagine a friend tells you about a free concert they will be going to. The concert is in a few days, and it’s a band you like. You tell your friend you will definitely go. On the day of the concert, you start having second thoughts about going. You know you’ll enjoy the show, but you are a little tired… maybe you’ll just stay in. It’s free anyway, and your friend is going with other people so they aren’t going to be upset if you bail… so you’ve lost nothing. In this scenario, it’s very easy to say you’ll go but decide at the last minute that you won’t.

Now, imagine your friend gives you a physical ticket. It’s still free, your friend doesn’t mind if you don’t go – all other variables are the same. You stick the ticket on your fridge and see it every day. Now, when the day of the concert comes, while illogical, I’m betting you will feel more obligated to go, and as a result, will be more likely to show up.

This is what I perceive as the difference between claiming you are “going” to a Facebook event, and being emailed an actual ticket.

I implemented this by centering our campaign around an Eventbrite page. This site allows you to create an event and “sell” tickets for your event (you can set the price as free, which is what we did). The digital ticket is emailed to the purchaser, along with a button to sync the event to your Google Calendar. Eventbrite will send tastefully frequent email reminders as well. So the goal of the campaign, then, was to point as many people to our Eventbrite page to obtain a digital ticket.

Next, I had to find our market.

Facebook

Our Facebook following was already reasonable and was a great start. There is a wide demographic that is active on Facebook, and I thought advertising there should be the backbone of our campaign. It supports pictures, videos and text very well, and allows for content to be posted and remain visible and easy to find – a very important difference between the other social media services we considered.

Instagram and Twitter

The other services we considered were Twitter and Instagram. I opted to focus on Twitter only and forgo Instagram for a few reasons.

  1. Twitter has an older, more “professional” user base. I assumed that they are more likely to be interested in the event, and more likely to follow through with attending
  2. Twitter is more text-friendly. I planned on using the existing “Featured Researcher” posts which contained a lot of text information, and extending it into being the core of the campaign
  3. Sharing posts is easier on Twitter. The retweet function is a great way of extending your advertising reach into the social circles of people who already like what you do. Instagram does not have such a feature (though it is available through 3rd-party apps)

So in short, I selected Twitter because I believed it better supported the media I would be sharing (short articles), contained the target demographic (older, professional), and had better sharing capabilities (retweets). The sharing capabilities were of the utmost importance since this meant I was able to lean on the reach of McMaster’s Twitter accounts as well as connect with the presenters to access their social circles. Of course, given more time and resources, there is no reason I can think of to forgo any of the social media platforms, but with the time available to me, I thought it was worth focusing on one.

Summary

  1. Pick a tangible objective (get tickets into people’s inboxes)
  2. Identify a target market (university students, STEM professionals, friends and families of the presenters)
  3. Decide on an advertising method (short articles about the work of the presenters)
  4. Pick the social media platform that contains your target demographic and suits the media you will be producing (Twitter = older, professional, text-based. Instagram = younger, artsy, image-based. Facebook = huge base, hosts static information well)

Implementation and Results

The plan was to write short, entertaining Research Spotlight articles for each presenter. However, the first thing I did upon receiving the log-in information to the Facebook and Twitter account was to follow as many other similar accounts, and especially follow the presenters (if they used social media). This would make it easier for me to tag relevant groups throughout the week.

Now, since a few articles were already complete, I was able to release about one a day leading into the event. I would post the full article on Facebook (with a link to the Eventbrite page), then write a very short version for Twitter, linking to the full article on Facebook. The Facebook post was released at approximate 9:30 am every day, and the Twitter post was released at about 11:30 am. I chose these times to match my own procrastination habits, hopefully resulting in the posts being near the top of most people’s feeds when they are more likely to be looking.

In designing these posts, I tried to stick to a formula. Present an interesting, real-life problem, propose a possible solution, then relate how the researcher’s work relates to the solution. These posts would be accompanied by a striking or colorful image that also related to their work. This required a significant amount of research, since I was unfamiliar with most of the presenters’ fields. However, I thought it was worth the time and effort to provide interesting rather than superficial content.

Throughout the week, I was able to monitor the number of views and interactions each post received. This allowed me to slightly tailor my writing style and media selection for each post, as well as try different ways of tagging people and groups. I was also able to supplement a poorly performing Facebook post with additional tweets, to keep a steady stream of viewers.

While I don’t have data from our Eventbrite page, I observed that my Facebook posts, coupled with links from Twitter, generated on average about a 300% increase in organic traffic. Moreover, I received glowing praise from the event coordinator, who informed me the turnout this year far exceed that of any other year.

As for the actual event, I spent the evening wandering around, awkwardly snapping pictures, trying not to be too intrusive. I really had no idea what to do otherwise. One thing worth noting was the photography notice posted at the entrance. My understanding is that in Canada, anyone doing anything in a public space is legally fair-game for photographers. This, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t creepy, annoying or inappropriate to photograph people and especially their kids, without asking. However, having to constantly ask people in your frame if they mind being in the picture, we posted a sign that informed guests we would be taking pictures to be used on social media. If you do not wish to be photographed, please speak to one of our volunteers. Most people will be fine with this, and knowing that people have seen this made me feel a whole lot more comfortable photographing the event.

Conclusion

This was only a volunteer position and I believe I put a lot more thought and effort into it than was expected. This was fine – from the beginning I had decided I wanted to treat this opportunity as a sort of trial run of this kind of profession. I did find that, like many things, there is basically no upper bound on the amount of time you can spend working on a job like this. I find that exciting, but also a little frightening. I can imagine a career doing this sort of work would require excellent time management skills. But more importantly, I found this job to be quite fun and very satisfying.

How to Make More Money and Be More Productive

Describe your daily schedule. When do you wake up? When do you go to bed? …you do have a daily schedule, right?

I seem to go through a month-long cycle. For two consecutive weeks – my productive weeks – I will easily adhere to a good, disciplined schedule. For whatever reason, weeks three and four become increasingly difficult for me, and it becomes a struggle to maintain my good habits. This shows itself as a decrease in energy, mood, and overall productivity.

This makes me wonder; what are the most important factors that determine my own productivity?

Amount of Sleep Affects Productivity

This is the same question Jeffrey Shrader et al. wanted to answer, hypothesizing that amount of sleep greatly affects productivity. Since “productivity” is a somewhat ambiguous term, they used wages earned as a marker for productivity and compared it to the amount of sleep people got. Of course there are an incredible number of factors that influence wage aside from amount of sleep such as gender, race, age, etc. To eliminate as many of these variables as possible, Shrader et al. discovered an interesting trick…

The continental United States is broken up into four time-zones across about 4300 km of land. In physics, strange things often happen at interfaces. Likewise, if you had two otherwise identical people living on either side of the boundary of a time-zone, one will have a sunset offset by an hour. To quote the original paper,

“…sunset time is a relevant instrument because human sleep timing responds strongly to solar cues. Examination of ATUS activity logs [an enormous time-use study] shows that workers experiencing earlier sunset also go to bed earlier and that this correlation between sunset and bedtime persists even if the worker goes to bed well after dark. Coordinated work start times translate this earlier bedtime into longer sleep.”

In other words, since business hours (wake-up time) are unaffected by sunrise time, and bedtime is strongly influenced by sunset time, one can do a side-by-side comparison between people who chronically sleep more and people who sleep less by comparing people who straddle a time-zone. By controlling for other variables like gender, race, age, etc, they found increasing sleep by one hour corresponded to a 16% increase in wages. This is significant, and unlike many other studies that use things like Daylight Savings Time (which wear off after a couple days), corresponds to long-term sleep trends.

Evidently, the amount of sleep one gets is positively correlated to how much money they make, which is a not-too-distant variable related to (but not to be confused with) productivity. Of course, one always needs to be careful with findings like this. It suggests that sleep determines productivity in some way, but offers absolutely no explanation as to why. However, the hypothesis that more sleep corresponds to a well rested brain sounds reasonable.

So, I can try and get more rest each night. But does the timing of when I sleep matter?

Larks vs Owls

A paper by Danish researchers lead by Bonke charmingly dubs early and late risers “Larks” and “Owls” respectively, and looks at the wages earned by each group. In 2009 they found that, unadjusted for qualifications and job type, Larks earned 7% more than Owls, but when these factors were accounted for, the difference dropped to a statistically insignificant value. However, data from 2001 showed the adjusted difference was a significant 7% (while the unadjusted difference was a staggering 14%).

Comparing the unadjusted data to the adjusted data from 2009, the researchers hypothesize that an early bird lifestyle is more in line with how societal institutions operate – it’s easier to make it to school and work on time, and if you are productive at those hours, you will have an easier time in those endeavors. This, in theory, leads to higher education outcomes and higher wages. So Larks are more likely to attain higher education and training than Owls, leading to higher wages. By accounting for education and job type, they found no significant difference between the two groups, meaning an Owl that perseveres and attains the same qualifications will have the same outcomes as Larks… though fewer Owls manage to do this.

One can also compare these results to the 2001 results. In 2001, the researchers still found a 7% difference between the two groups, even accounting for education and job type. This seems a little mysterious, but digging into the methodology of the study can give some insight.

The Lark and Owl groups were determined based on individual’s weekend sleep habits. The idea being, one the weekend you will default to your preferred sleep schedule. Late risers on the weekend are capable of waking up early on the weekday, but will be less chipper and effective than a naturally early riser. So a Lark is someone who wakes early all week, while an Owl wakes late on the weekend, but may still wake early during the work week.

At this point I will speculate – between the years 2001 and 2009, many more high paying jobs moved from rigid 9-5 hours to having more flexibility. With many technology jobs allowing employees to work remotely and in a sense “make their own hours”, one need not be in the office at the ungodly hour of 9:00 AM. Likewise, many schools offer online courses which allow for students to obtain high education without forcing them into a Lark’s world. I think these results may be telling us that letting late risers work on the schedule that best suits them is *gasp*, a good thing.

Learning from the Best – Beating Decision Fatigue

These studies are thorough, but the nature of the problem is very difficult to treat quantitatively. In fact, before enormous data sets like the ones from the studies above were available (and analyzable – thanks to computers), anecdotal evidence was the currency. While psychologists, economists etc are working to answer these questions rigorously, sometimes the most immediate, actionable advice can be obtained anecdotally – by explore the daily habits and schedules of successful people.

In the book “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work”, the author Mason Curry collects and presents the daily habits of some 161 famous writers, composers, scientists, and otherwise successful creatives. Of course these descriptions, especially when self-reported, ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Humans are incredible at finding patterns, even when there are none. It’s quite likely that if one is asked about daily schedules, the regularity of the schedule or how well it is adhered to may be exaggerated.

With that in mind, one of patterns in the book is that the majority of these impressive intellectuals rise early (about 6:00 AM) and begin working quickly, often finishing for the day by noon. After this period, many take to socializing and leisure, followed by a relatively early bedtime.

This seems to be consistent with the findings of Bonke. Many of the people profiled worked in solitude, often writing, composing, or otherwise working away from others. Just like the increased freedom afforded by technology, many of the greats could do what they did outside of societally deemed “normal hours”. Even many of those with let’s say, engaged social lives, seemed to thrive off routine. The son of Ernest Hemingway recalled that his father would wake every morning between 5:30 and 6:00 AM and begin writing, regardless of the number of drinks that came the evening before.

This sort of makes sense. In the words of American philosopher and psychologist William James (who, by the way, struggled with keeping a regular schedule),

“The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more of our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of ever cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”

To put this into context, let’s take a second and roleplay.

Partner 1: Honey, what do you want for dinner?

Partner 2: I don’t know, what do you want?

Partner 1: Doesn’t matter, whatever you feel like.

Partner 2: No, that’s ok, you can decide.

Partner 1: Really, I don’t really have a preference.

Partner 2: Well, I decided last night.

Partner 1: So? I didn’t realize we were keeping a ledger of who chose dinner.

Partner 2: Pizza. We are ordering pizza. Happy?

Partner 1: Yeah, sounds good. What do you want on it?

Partner 2: I want a divorce.

The more daily decisions you can offload to routine, the more mental capacity you will have for work (or not enraging your partner at the end of the day). This concept has been branded as “decision fatigue”, and while not a new idea, has recently gained attention in pop culture.

The current thinking is that everyone has some amount of mental reserve for making decisions. Each decision you make takes some effort, and by the end of the day, even simple decisions become incredibly unpleasant. Some hypothesize that this has disproportionately detrimental effects to people with lower income, for whom more decisions like “did I pay rent”, or “can I afford to buy lunch today” weigh on their minds.

This concept has pushed some people to make seemingly strange lifestyle choices – like having several sets of only one or two outfits, which is a total Steve Jobs, Zuckerberg and Obama move. (As someone who loves efficiency but gets pleasure from fashion and building outfits, I am torn on this strategy).

As a physicist, I am trained to take an interesting phenomenon and strip it away to its bare bones. This, unfortunately, is exceedingly difficult when it comes to human behavior. Scientists who study this sort of thing have such an incredibly hard job, but the results are worth it. While I can’t say definitively “this is the schedule you should adhere to in order to be maximally productive”, it appears that quantity of sleep is important (surprised?) but regularity of your daily habits may in fact be just as, if not more, important.

So what can you do to be more productive? First thing, is do exactly what your mother taught you; have a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Next, perhaps experiment with an extra hour of sleep per night. But most importantly, try to adhere to a daily schedule. By offloading conscious decisions to habit, hopefully you can save some mental energy that I can put towards more productive things. Specifically, weekly meal planning, packing your things for the next day before you go to bed, keeping a regular schedule at work, and having a non-negotiable time to exercise are all good things to try.

Or maybe, you should just do exactly what these successful people did. Here, try this; one of philosopher Kierkegaard’s daily rituals. I call it the “Cafe au Kierkegaard”.

Cafe au Kierkegaard

  • Have assistant select a mixed cup and saucer pair from two of fifty unique sets (2500 possible combinations)
  • Demand that they justify their choice!
  • Fill cup completely with sugar. Seriously, right to the top.
  • Slowly pour very strong, black coffee over the coffee, stirring constantly to form a horrible sludge
  • Consume rapidly
  • Chase with a glass of sherry

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Is Science Soul-Crushing?

I love science. I really do. But is it the most negative thing I involve myself in voluntarily?

“Do you ever think people will be able to speak to their pets?”

“lol no.”

“Well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”

“Maybe as an exception, but there is no way that’s generally true.”

“Don’t worry, everything happens for a reason.”

“Sure, without accepting the assumption of causality, it’s all just chaos. Still, that doesn’t make it any more meaningful.”

“It’s ok, little Adam, Book* has gone on to a better place”

“…”

(*When I got my first fish, I didn’t know what to name it. My parents suggested I name it after something or someone I liked. Hence, Book.)

One can look at science as an occasional “maybe, but…” in a world of “no”. Unfettered, it’s not hard to see how “guilty until proven innocent” can turn into depressing cynicism (sorry, Book, there’s just no proof of a “fish heaven”). Falsifiability – being able to proven theory is false – is crucial to scientific thinking. Another way to think of this: every test a theory passes makes it a stronger “maybe”, but as soon as a theory fails, it’s a “no”. After a theory has failed to fail a few reasonable tests, we tend to treat it as true. But there’s always a chance it could fail in a way you didn’t think of.

Humans thrive on acceptance and positivity. No one wants to be told no, they are wrong, or that they don’t understand. But as a scientist, it’s your job to tell your friends and colleagues “I don’t believe you, prove it” and likewise be told “no, I think you are wrong”. The constant rejection and skepticism can be emotionally draining.

Maybe this is why graduate students in STEM have such high diagnosed rates of depression. A recent article in Nature suggests the rate of diagnosis of anxiety and depression is six-times higher in graduate students than the general population. I’m otherwise not going to speculate on any connections between the culture of academia and clinical depression or anxiety but instead focus on how research can be emotionally taxing, and can negatively affect those who engage in it. (By the way, if any of this hits home, I encourage you to ask for help. Many people wait for a serious, catastrophic event before seeking help. It might be the hardest, but most important, and bravest thing you can do.)

On my worst days, it’s hard to look past the rejections and failures, and it may seem like science is an inherently depressing activity. As human beings with a senses of self, I would guess it’s impossible for anyone to avoid this feeling, at least occasionally. Yet this is not the fault of science itself, rather a symptom of being human, focusing on the wrong things, and deviating from the way one ought to look at science. This is not to put the blame entirely on the individual – I believe there is institutionalized pressure to act this way (we will discuss this later) – but I think there are ways to stay positive amidst the negativity.

To avoid this trap, I remind myself of one guiding principle. When my experiments aren’t working and it feels like everything is going off the rails, this principle helps me dissociate from the negativity return to my work with a healthy attitude:

Don’t be results-oriented

This may seem counter-intuitive. The point of science is to obtain results, but the specific outcome that these results give shouldn’t affect your value as a person who is a scientist. (To be clear, I think a scientist who produces a fantastic and exciting result should be celebrated, and some scientists will do better work than others, but one should find satisfaction in doing their job well, even if they don’t receive a Nobel Prize)

I think of it in a few ways…

“No” is just as important as “Yes”

Incorrect =/= Worthless. The Mythbusters have made incredibly satisfying careers out of saying “no”, while still being positive and loved by millions. They do this by giving their myths (theories) only exactly as much respect as they deserve, meaning they do not become emotionally attached to any one idea. The goal is not to find evidence that pushes a preferred narrative. The goal is to find out “under what circumstances could this theory be true?”

Most theories are wrong. That’s just how it is. You’ll probably find your initial theories fail most of the time. Likewise, most myths turn out to be exactly that – myth. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have fun failing, or that you get nothing useful out of the process. Most myths are based on something true, after all. And eventually, if you’re lucky, you might just prove something incredible is “plausible”.

Speaking of process…

Science is a process, not just a collection of results

When someone clears the Science category on Jeopardy, you don’t hear Alex Trebek say “wow, what an incredible scientist!”

“Doing science” is using a set of logical tools to learn something about our world. If I wanted a piece of art to hang on the wall, I wouldn’t buy a puzzle. As a scientist, you are not an art collector, you are a puzzle builder.

In this analogy I am treating your theory as the puzzle and each experiment as a piece. When a piece doesn’t fit into the puzzle, it doesn’t mean you are bad at puzzles or the piece is garbage – it may just belong to another puzzle. Each piece you discover is important, and should be treated as such.

Of course it’s valid to have a preconceived idea of what you want to learn and to push in that direction. Without working in a specific direction, you’re doing a random walk and could be wasting a lot of time. But if you discard “negative results” or results that don’t relate to your original research question, you are throwing out puzzle pieces that may be useful to someone else, but more importantly, turning the time you spent on that piece into wasted time.

Unfortunately it seems like this narrative is incompatible with the publish-or-perish reality of academia. As it stands, it is uncommon to publish “null results”, or, papers that do not confirm a hypothesis. Additionally, many researcher’s careers are determined by the number of publications that they produce each year. This means that if your study did not lead to a positive result, the failure is exactly equal to a professional failure. You’ve effectively wasted the time you spent on that work and have nothing to show for it. This means tonnes of good data may never see the light of day. Might as well have not come in to the lab.

Not only can the “only positive results are good results” and “more is better” mentality of academia be detrimental to the mental health of researchers, but one can argue it may be diluting the quality of research.

I’m lucky. I’ve worked with a supervisor who has made it clear from day one, that my mental health and work-life balance is of the utmost importance. He has also made it clear that very good, important science can happen when you chase a strange result that doesn’t fit into your puzzle. But we also do not work in an ultra-competitive field that is bloated with thousands and thousands of researchers.

I am lucky, but there are many graduate students and researchers who are not in this comfortable position. I think that if the push for funding and publishing forces one to stray from being creative, exploratory, and open, then science is in serious danger of becoming a soul crushing monster.

The broad-strokes solution, I guess, is for everyone to agree to chill and keep a sane work-life balance that prioritizes the right aspects of science. And the solution to overpopulation is to just spread everyone out. Obviously, we need to identify small, tangible problems and propose realistic, (hopefully simple) solutions.

This post is the first part of what I think will be a two-parts. So to conclude part one, I will list what I perceive to be problems with the way research is done today. But before I proceed with the list, remember the original goal here is to identify problems with the culture of research that make it an emotionally difficult activity. Some of these “problems” may be necessary aspects of how academia works. I don’t expect academia to be some group-hug love fest. But as you read the list, keep an open mind and consider how solving these problems may positively affect net scientific output as well.

  1. Careers are determined by publishing record – often skewed to volume of published work
  2. Null results are treated as less important and often unpublished, leading to wasted data and wasted time, both for the original researchers but also researchers who unknowingly attempt a similar experiment
  3. Highly competitive fields disincentivize exploratory work in exchange for laser-focused research narratives
  4. Good data can be expensive and hard to obtain but may not lead to a publishable result, yet there can be very little professional incentive to share it otherwise

In the next installment we will begin exploring some of these problems. In the mean-time, if you have comments opinions, I would love to chat in the comments or @arts_andscience or @AdamFortais on Twitter 🙂

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Dear Adam: Bizarre Love Triangle

I have extensive experience connecting the heart to the mind, and knows the only thing true love needs to grow is pure, brutal logic. As such, periodically, I will reach into the mailbag and answer your romantic queries. This week, I try to reduce a messy love triangle into a love… line?

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Let’s try to turn your Bizarre Love Triangle into a Familiar Line of Affection

Dear Adam,

I am desperately in love with someone. But lo! There is a competing suitor! Unfortunately, my dear, sweet, conflicted lover can’t decide if my rival or I would be a better partner. “You are both so nice and are so good for me, but for different reasons!” It would appear that my sweet peach needs time to think, and see who will persevere through the indecision longer. Oh Adam, what do I do? How long do I wait? Please help.

Sincerely,

Strung-Along

Dear Strung-Along,

I am sorry to hear about your unfortunate circumstance. Oh, to be in such demand, am I right? Your “sweet peach” (or maybe sour apple?) appears to have their pick of the orchard. But we aren’t talking about fields of trees; love is a battlefield, and what you have here is a war of attrition.

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Well, it’s not not true….

Like two starving vultures, you and your rival stare each other down over the steaming carrion that is your love, unwilling to fight directly (a good call, best avoid the Prisoner’s Dilemma), but terrified you will never find love like this again! How long do you wait? At what point have you waited too long? You certainly aren’t getting any younger… Let’s consider your options.

They say time is money, but love don’t cost a thing… but that’s nonsense, and “they” are wrong. Let’s think of your situation as an “all-pay, blind auction”, since I assume you are not on speaking terms with your rival. You both cast your maximum bid of time, and the higher bidder wins the love. However, both parties are still required to pay the lowest of the two bids.

Let’s assume you and your rival are equally desperate, so the value of love is L for both of you. If your bid is b, then losing will results in -b happiness, while winning results in L-b happiness. If you both bid the same amount of time then I assume you will engage in polygamy and end up with a happiness value of (L-b)/2.

Knowing that you can wait forever, but only have to wait as long as your rival does, suggests it may be in your best interest to indeed plan to wait forever. But what if you both decide to wait longer than (L-b)/2?  You and your rival both risking mutually assured destruction, coming out a bitter, disenchanted lover if you win, or dying cold and alone if you lose. Both are negative results, in my professional opinion. We can simplify our problem and hopefully determine our strategy by considering two resolutions:

  1. There is a high bidder, and a low bidder. If you think you will be the low bidder, the logical strategy is to quit immediately, insuring you don’t lose anything. If you think you will be the high bidder, you are incentivized to bid the lowest number that still assures victory. So if there is no tie, both parties are pressured to make the lowest possible bid, converging on zero to ensure the maximum possible payout or the minimum possible loss. 
  2. You will tie. If you think you may tie, you have no reason to bid more than (L-b)/2 for risk of winning but still coming out a loser.

Since we play nice at Dear Adam, we will only consider pure strategies. The only logical choices are to not play (no losses), or to wait up to (L-b)/2, and you must decide now. But who knows what your rival will do? We can make a table of the range of outcomes based on you and your rival’s decision:

Your Decision Stay between 0 to (L-b)/2 Go
Range of Outcomes -(L-b)/2 to L 0

In the wise words of The Clash, “should I stay or should I go, now?”

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So what’s it gonna be boy? Will you love me forever? Oops, wrong song.

I’m sorry to say, but there is no way to guarantee you come out of this happy. If you leave now, you can be sure you won’t be unhappy, but there is nothing saying you will come out ahead by staying. You can try to get in the head of your enemy and assign some probabilities to their actions, but that just turns this into gambling. I am sorry but hey, that’s life. My recommendation is to ignore the table and never give up. You might end a winner, you might end a loser, but at least you won’t be a quitter. (This also reduces competition for me by exactly one person: you.)

Illogically yours,

Adam

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