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Preparing a research statement and crafting a research trajectory

People keep asking me how to write a research statement and how they can develop a research trajectory. My own pathway has been quite variegated so I don’t recommend following mine (as I have many interests and have done a lot of things). My advice is particularly targeted to those in disciplines, fields and countries where it’s much more common to have the usual linear trajectory (PhD, publishing sometimes and other times, waiting until the degree, post-doctoral fellowship to get some articles out or work on a book manuscript, publish 5-6 articles and a single-authored monograph, and start work on a second project before coming up for tenure).


Photo credit: David Mertl on Flickr, Creative Commons Licensed Attribution

Since I didn’t want to provide “advice”, I instead chose to tweet a thread of my own research statement and research trajectory. You can read my Research Interests statement here. As I said in my Twitter thread, research trajectories are highly personal. What will interest me in 5 years? I am not sure. I was always interested in cooperation. I think that I study things I did not see coming in 2011, when I first wrote about my own research trajectory. To be perfectly honest, I never thought I would be studying water conflicts now, or water privatization, even if I had already started doing work on the politics of bottled water in 2009.

A research statement, in my view, should state what you’ve studied, how you’ve studied it, and the outputs you’ve generated, as well as a general overview of where your research is going to take you. The research statement, since it’s a document targeted at academic job search committees, should be concise (1-2 pages) and provide an overview of current projects, completed ones, and in-process or about-to-launch ones.

A research trajectory is, to me, a long-term plan/description of how the work of an academic or a scholar has evolved through time, and where it could possibly go. A research trajectory has temporal and evolutionary dimensions: it’s a narrative of where you were at a certain point in your career as a scholar, and where have you moved or what you’ve accomplished.

Here is my Twitter thread.

Also, below you can find some resources on both research trajectories and research statements.

On research statements: see this guide chock full of good tips, UCSF’s suggestions, and this blog post. I really liked how this postdoctoral fellow wrote her research statement.

And on research trajectories, here, here and here. I loved how this scholar wrote his research trajectory, too. Here is an example of a sample research trajectory that serves as a template for what a clinical scholar should do.

I think the core two pieces of advice on research statements and research trajectories can be found in these two tweets:

Addendum: I used text from my Twitter thread to draft my Research Trajectory.

Posted in academia, research.

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Planning work over the summer (for faculty and undergrad/graduate students)

Two of my quasi-doctoral students (Cesar Alvarez from University of California Los Angeles and Mariana Miguelez from The Ohio State University), have asked me a few times whether I could write a blog post about how to plan a summer. As doctoral students in the United States, their summer is approximately 4 months (from May through August). Fellow faculty members have asked me for the same. When I used to work in Canada, I would have 4 months, but now at CIDE I have only from June through mid-August. These summer months still assume I’m on campus and thus I should be available for meetings, etc. Because of this shortened summer, I rarely plan anything extended beyond knowing when I should take a holiday (which I usually do at the same time as when CIDE closes over the summer for 3 weeks). At any rate, when I need to plan summer activities, I follow the model I present below.

Drafts monthly plans

The process I follow is approximately the following (as drawn from my thread):

These tweets describe my strategy in more detail.

Something asked me how do I deal with STCUS (Shit That Comes Up Somehow) and here is how: I add those tasks that I either had to do without having planned them, or somebody dropped those commitments on my lap (e.g. administrative stuff that needs to be dealt with for my institution). I use a green coloured pen to mark them as “this came up, had to do it”.

For doctoral students (and Masters and undergraduate too), I strongly recommend that they incorporate a review of their progress in their summer planning. Summers are possibly the only periods (unless they have to teach or work if they do not have funding, in order to make ends meet) when a doctoral student could possibly reflect without having additional pressures. This reflection could help them remap their progress.

You could potentially use whatever is left of the month of April to write a first draft of a DTP and update it every month, or update a file with notes about your progress that could then be reworked into a DTP. If you are a faculty member writing a book, perhaps doing a DTP would help as well!

The following few tweets show how I do the monthly and weekly planning, with actual visual examples.

To recap, my suggestion for planning a summer:

1) Set up a goal for the end of the summer (whichever months that would be – for this blog post’s sake consider May 1st the beginning of summer and August 31st the end).
2) Break down each goal/objective/milestone into achievable tasks and milestones to be accomplished each month/week.
3) Backcast those goals from the end of August backwards through to the beginning of May using a Gantt Chart and printed monthly and weekly calendars.
4) Plan your day using #2ThingsADay, Granular Planning and the Rule of Threes or whichever method you prefer, based on weekly goals to achieve.
5) Drop those commitments in either a Google Calendar or an Everything Notebook or whichever method you best prefer.

Obviously this process can be adapted to plan a semester (either Fall or Spring) as well. Hope this blog post helps people out there!

Posted in academia, planning, writing.

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How to write the discussion section of an academic paper

This is one of the most challenging questions people have ever asked me, because after looking through dozens of journal articles in my Mendeley database, I could not find a lot of them who used Discussion sections. I believe this idea of the Discussion component of an academic journal article (or book chapter, in some cases) comes from the IMRAD model of publishing, that is, papers that have at least the following five sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, Analysis and Discussion (hence the acronym).

Personally, I neither like, nor do I often write this type of journal article. Even when I was a chemical engineer, I can’t recall that I read many papers in the IMRAD model, as they all had a variation (merging Discussion with Results, or Results with Conclusion, or Discussion with Conclusion). As I said on Twitter, I read engineering, natural science and social science literatures. Thusly, the Discussion sections that I read vary QUITE A LOT.


All Discussion sections I’ve read are

  1. analytical, not descriptive,
  2. specific in their interpretation of research results,
  3. robust in their linkage of research findings with theories, other empirical reports and various literatures,
  4. good at explaining how a paper’s results may contradict earlier work, extend it, advance our understanding of X or Y phenomenon and, most definitely:
  5. NOT the conclusion of the paper.

What I think is important to remember when writing the Discussion section of a paper, is to really ANALYZE, not just describe. Link theories, methods, data, other work.

As usual in my blog posts, I here link to a few resources that may be of help (written by other authors).

In my Twitter thread, I suggested ways to discern (and learned from) how authors have written their discussion sections.

There are times when scholars blend Discussion and Conclusions, or Results and Discussions sections. This is not even discipline-dependent, it’s author-dependent.

Another example, now from the criminal justice field.

Hopefully these notes will be helpful to fellow scholars writing these sections!

Posted in academia, writing.

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Preparing for the doctoral dissertation defense (the “viva”)

I did my PhD in Canada, where doctoral dissertation defenses are public, so what I’m going to narrate here is how I prepared for my own defense under the rules and standards of the school where I graduated from (The University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada). I won’t cover other systems as I don’t know them well. My own PhD students have had to defend in a similar way to the one I faced when I did my PhD dissertation defense, so I’m combining both in this blog post.

PhD defense

First of all, if your PhD dissertation advisor told you that “the moment you hate your dissertation the most is when you’re ready to defend”, I can 100% certify that this assertion is absolutely true. By the time I submitted my PhD dissertation for external examination (six weeks before my defense date), I was ready to just about not ever look at it again in my entire life. But the truth is that my PhD advisor wouldn’t let me do that. He suggested that I should start preparing for my defense about 4 weeks before the date, which is exactly what I did.

This is the process I followed, and more or less the process my own doctoral students have followed as well:

  • I prepared a summary of the main argument of my PhD dissertation, using the Dissertation Two Pager strategy (DTP).
  • Based on my DTP, I created a 15-20 Power Point presentation. I sent that file to my PhD advisor for review.
  • Once he reviewed it, I cut the presentation to about 15 slides.
  • We met once a week for the first two weeks, and two times the third week. I ran through my presentation with him and made notes of what I did right and what I did wrong.
  • The last week before defending, I did my presentation in the actual defense room with my best friend, who is also a professor at UBC, as the audience. He suggested additional changes to my presentation (particularly, cutting material and making my argument more concise).
  • The day before I defended, I did one more practice run with a group of cohort friends. I did this in the morning so that I could take the evening off, and the following morning as well.
  • On the day of the defense, I did absolutely nothing connected to my research. I had breakfast with my partner, went for a walk, called my family over the phone, brought my laptop to campus (also stored the presentation in a USB as well as emailed it to myself).
  • At the defense, I ran through my talk, and prepared for the questions by having a jug of water and a notepad and pen near by.

Thesis defense (xkcd)

A few tips that I can offer based on my own defense and my doctoral students’:

  • Make your presentation short. Keep any additional material in slides AFTER the final slide of your presentation. This was an amazing piece of advice from my PhD advisor that I have kept for all my talks now that I’m a professor.
  • Practice, practice, practice. By the time I did my presentation, which I rocked by the way, I was the world’s foremost expert in my topic and I could convince people of my findings and argument. My advisor wanted me to do lots of practice runs and I did them, with various audiences. I strongly recommend that one of the presentations is in front of someone who already has a PhD and has gone through the doctoral defense.
  • Prepare a list of potential questions that committee members could ask and write down their answers. I aced my presentation because I was ready for absolutely everything my committee could throw my way. Why did I not discuss this particular body of theory? “Because I wanted to focus on X, but my understanding of the field is as such…”
  • Remember, your committee is on your side. I was frazzled by the time I started the examination, but then I realized I was spending three hours with brilliant people who wanted me to succeed and hear all about my dissertation research. It became a fantastic conversation that ended with comments like “the book version of your dissertation could include X, Y and Z and Famous Press ABC would be interested in publishing it.” and “I think your postdoctoral research could take this trajectory“.
  • Attend other PhD students’ defenses. A few people told me that this wasn’t a good idea, but in fact it is. Not only does it mentally prepare you for the sequence of events that will occur throughout the defense, but also, if you attend your friends’ defenses, you’re providing them with a friendly audience they can look at and with moral and emotional support. They could in turn also be your allies.
  • Make sure your presentation includes all the elements of a PhD dissertation. I covered all the bases: Justification, Context, Theoretical and Empirical Contributions, Studies I Conducted, Findings and Results, Discussion, Limitations and Future Work. I ask that my PhD students cover the same.
  • Remember the elements of what doing a PhD entails and use those to frame your presentation. I ask that my students make VERY CLEAR what their original contribution to the literature is, and what gap they are filling (or how they are contributing to advancing our knowledge, e.g. by developing a new theoretical construct or constructing new datasets and testing new empirical strategies).

    Hopefully this blog post is of some use to doctoral students as they near their defense.

    If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in my Resources for Graduate Students page, and on my reading notes of books I’ve read on how to do a doctoral degree.

  • Posted in academia, research, writing.

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    What does Joli Jensen’s “low stakes, constant contact with a writing project” mean in practice?

    One of the best books I’ve ever read about academic writing was Joli Jensen’s “Write No Matter What“. Ever since I read it, I pondered, “what does ‘constant, low-stakes contact with a writing project‘ mean, in practice?” This notion of regularly contributing to a piece of writing, even if it’s not daily writing, was one of the most impactful statements that Jensen made in her book, perhaps the center piece of her writing about scholarly prose. But I also have wondered, what does Jensen mean by this, and how can this be implemented in practice?

    Workflow at my CIDE campus office

    As anybody who reads my blog knows well, I try as hard as possible to write every day. Writing is a muscle, as Jane Green said, and doing so on a regular basis is what has enabled me to produce what I have published. For me, writing is an integral part of my daily routine – I wake up at Ungodly O’Clock (4:00 am) and write, and I guard my dedicated time for reading, research and writing very jealously. I make writing (even if it’s just a little bit) one of my #2ThingsADay. I like doing AIC-CSED combos (reading and systematizing one paper per day into a row of a Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump to stay on top of the literature the literature). But like any human being, there are days when I can’t write for some bizarre reason (usually, jet-lag or extremely booked up days, where I can’t even wake up early to drop a few words on paper or in a Word document). Or, when I fall sick, or I’m in physical pain that I can’t reduce.

    This made me realize that I needed to ponder what, to me, was “frequent, low-stress contact with a project that interests me, in a supportive environment“?

    Here are a few ways in which I stay in frequent, low-stress contact with my writing projects. I should say I am lucky to have supportive environments, particularly right now where I can dedicate entire days to research and writing.

    1) Writing thoughts about my research or taking notes off journal articles, books and book chapters in my Everything Notebook.

    This should be pretty obvious – jotting down thoughts and transcribing ideas are ideal strategies to maintain low-stress contact with a writing project.

    #AcWri on the plane

    2) Highlighting and scribbling a paper, and dropping those notes onto my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump or a memorandum or a synthetic note.

    Generating these notes prompts me to write, and keeps me in touch with my project.

    AcWri and reading - staying on top of the literature

    3) Editing a draft.

    While I find editing drafts very hard I do enjoy checking whether I have cited stuff properly a much more amenable and enjoyable activity.

    My full process for writing a paper

    4) Reading across disciplinary and methodological boundaries and live-tweeting my reading notes.

    These reading notes often either become blog posts or written material for memoranda.

    Stationery, highlighters, pens and editing a paper

    5) Revisiting my projects’ progress and re-planning my writing deadlines and targets.

    This process of reviewing my progress weekly and monthly allows me to shift priorities around, depending on what I’ve received as feedback from editors and journals.

    Reading outlining and calendar cross-posting

    6) Mind-mapping concepts, ideas, connections within my research projects.

    Sometimes, the kind of work packet I need is a mind map of a specific field (read my blog post on how I map an entire field of research) or sub-field, or area of the literature. Drawing this mind-map reconnects me with my writing project and reopens avenues for closer examination, and often prompts me to write.

    Stationery, highlighters, pens and editing a paper

    7) Preparing and giving a talk about a paper I’m writing or one that I’ve already written.

    This process serves a little bit like a reverse outline strategy as Rachael Cayley calls it. Generating the Power Point slides associated with my talk allows me to see if my thoughts flow freely and whether the argument comes out clearly.

    AcWri focus on one thing

    More importantly, while I continue to champion daily writing, I acknowledge that this may not always work, even for me. So I think any written content that allows a researcher to stay in touch with their writing project should be considered #AcWri. Yes, even if that content is within the text of an email to a coauthor, an RA or oneself.

    Posted in academia, writing.

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    Backcasting a Revise-And-Resubmit (R&R) manuscript

    This morning, as I was reflecting on a topic I’ve been mulling over (what does Joli Jensen mean by “constant contact with a writing project entail”?), I reviewed potential blog posts I could pre-schedule, and realized that there’s one that I give very little play, even though it’s a really good one: my reverse-planning technique for project planning. This technique is is also called backcasting.

    Since I’m currently working on returning Revise-And-Resubmit (R&R) manuscripts to the editor, I wanted to explain how I break projects down into manageable pieces. Basically, I back-cast the entire paper from the deadline, breaking it down in components. For example, I have 2 R&Rs that need to go back by March 18th. I have backcast each component, starting with the response-to-reviewers.

    My revised version of this backcasting diagram includes the fact that I drop every comment INTO my Drafts Review Matrix, and then draw FROM the DRM, dropping every work packet INTO my Everything Notebook, creating daily and weekly task lists, in a very similar fashion to how I do a yearly plan using my Everything Notebook and monthly printed calendars.

    Breaking down an R&R revised

    Knowing what I have to do by when to have a revision resubmitted to the journal editor by a certain date allows me to plan my writing. This process works for revise-and-resubmits, first submissions, theses, conference papers and dissertations. Simply choose the type of project, and then backcast and create task lists from work packets. The beauty of this process is that you can break down the total project in as many (small or smaller) work packets as necessary.

    Posted in academia, writing.

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    Reading, scribbling, highlighting, taking notes and organizing information from a journal article or book chapter – walking through my digital and analog processes

    I have written several Twitter threads about how do what many people call “active reading“: I read, highlight, scribble on the margins, take notes and then store these in digital and analog media. I use highlighting and writing marginalia to engage more deeply with the reading materials I am working with. I’ve also posted here on my website the most recent iteration of my colour-coded highlighting and scribbling process. This note-taking process generates material that I then store either in analog form (Everything Notebook, index cards, Cornell Notes), or in digital form (memorandums, synthetic notes, rhetorical precis or Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump rows)

    My #AcWri process integrating reading CSED

    A couple of days ago, I posted a Twitter thread showcasing my highlighting and scribbling and note-taking, as well as summarizing and organizing information digitally (and analogically). I decided to transfer my Twitter threads to a more permanent medium (my blog) so those who are interested in following similar approaches to active reading, literature reviewing and note-taking can do so. In this post I included several threads in order to make it easier for people to see different examples.

    For literature reviews and reading and note-taking, I use both digital and analog methods, as shown here.

    As I mentioned above, I’ve written SEVERAL Twitter threads showcasing my highlighting and scribbling. Here is another one, that also includes the process of filling out a Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED) row.

    I often use Twitter threads to showcase my highlighting and as pedagogical tools for my students, but at the same time live-tweet insights I gain from reading specific articles, books or book chapters. This is one of these examples.

    And here is yet ANOTHER Twitter thread where I highlight, scribble and store my thoughts in memoranda or CSED rows. This particular thread focuses on argumentative writing, and explains each highlighter colour, which relatese to my colour-coded hierarchical organization of ideas. This is a nested approach.

    Posted in academia, writing.

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    How to write an academic CV

    One of the documents that I find is most required not only in job applications for the academic job market, but also generally to assess scholarly contributions is the curriculum vitae (CV). I have designed and re-designed my own academic CV quite a few times, and for the most part, all I did was to follow examples I saw from other scholars. I got asked last year to write a blog post on how to write an academic CV, and I left it in my queue until now.

    After a few years on the tenure track, and having sat on several hiring committees and chaired a few of them, soI think I have an idea of what elements should be on an academic CV, though I don’t want to presume my own CV is perfect, or even an example (you can access my CV here). Here are a few recommendations before I share a few examples of CVs that I think are well crafted. Obviously these suggestions reflect advice *I* have been given as well!

    1. Include your production *primarily*.

    This is particularly a jab at Latin American CVs, where I see a list of the courses scholars have taken, or conferences they have ATTENDED. I believe that what should be reported on a CV is what a scholar produces. So, opinion pieces, consultancy reports, books, edited volumes, journal articles, and other types of products should be listed on a CV. A short list of courses taken (listed under “Additional Training”) could showcase special skills/computer software, but I don’t believe in listing every single course, nor conferences attended, rather than presented at.

    2. Make your CV as brief as possible.

    This is problematic once you’ve reached a certain number of years in the profession (my old CV was 23 pages long, and I’m not even a senior professor!). But I think that there are ways in which you can make your CV shorter. Instead of listing every paper you’ve presented at a conference, list the conferences (e.g. “APSA 2015, 2016, 2017″).

    3. Clearly and honestly present what you’ve produced

    I do not like when book chapters and journal articles are conflated. A number of scholars simply list “Publications”, but I believe that it is important to list what is peer-reviewed, what isn’t, book chapters separated from journal articles, opinion pieces, consultancy reports, etc.

    4. Include “Work in Progress” well after your publications.

    I always doubted whether I should include my work in progress, as I thought that since it wasn’t published yet, it would be problematic to say that I was working on something. A lot of senior scholars suggested that I should include it, but be very clear that it is Under Review. A number of academics also include what they’re preparing (In Preparation) though I am also not totally clear about whether or not it should be included. Still, it shouldn’t be in the Publications main section, but towards the end.

    5. Include only the personal information you feel comfortable with.

    In my CV I don’t post my personal address, and I certainly don’t post a photograph (though some countries require this, as well as your age!). I think you should only post what you feel comfortable with, and therefore I use my campus address. A number of people have asked me if they should include hobbies, past times, travel, etc. in their academic CV. I haven’t done it, but I don’t see why it would work towards their disadvantage.

    6. Ensure that your CV is visually appealing and READABLE

    My previous CV had a lot of fonts, underlining, highlighting, etc. My new one is a lot more sober. Depending on the font you use, you may get away with italics, etc. But I find that using white space, underlining and simpler fonts makes it easier for people to read your CV.

    A few examples I really like are linked here. Obviously, I did not link to EVERY CV I like, but wanted to showcase a number of these that I think could help ECRs and PhD students. I tried to include CVs of assistant, associate and full professors, as well as PhD students.

    Here you will find a few resources I deemed interesting on how to craft an academic CV.

    Obviously, different countries and academic cultures have different idiosyncracies, so you may find that some or a lot of these suggestions may not apply to your particular case. As I mentioned at the top of this blog post, I crafted mine through a number of iterations and comparisons between my CV and that of other scholars. You may want to use a similar approach.

    For additional examples of well-written CVs, please check the responses to my tweet below:

    Posted in academia.

    Circadian rhythms and classifying tasks according to energy required

    I work according to my circadian rhythm, which may be completely different to that of other people. I do wake up at Ungodly In The Morning (4:00am, or 4:30 when I’m a bit tired, or 6:00 am on weekends – for my reasoning for doing this, you can read this blog post), and obviously by the time I hit mid-day (12 noon), I’m done with the day. At most, I’m coherent around 1-2pm. And then, I need food and a nap, which normally lasts 1.5 hours (for my bi-phasic sleep cycle blog post, you can click here).

    I think you can understand why I sleep with this at night :)

    I strongly believe that we ought to listen to our bodies and circadian rhythms. And try to stay healthy as much as we can.

    Posted in academia.

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    My word for 2019: NO

    I have the hardest time saying NO. While I am an incredibly busy person, I am also someone who works super fast. As a result, I tend to overestimate how many things I can do, and end up saying YES to things I should have said NO. No longer. This year, for the very first time in a very long time, I was able to say “NO” to peer reviews. Remember, I’m a journal editor. Saying “NO” to peer reviews makes me feel really bad because I depend on others’ willingness to say YES.


    Creative Commons: Duncan C on Flickr.


    I’ve said YES enough. I’ve supported dozens of journals (both those on whose editorial board I am and those who are random). Sometimes I feel that I am asked to do more service because I don’t say NO. But this year, I’ve said NO to meetings, NO to peer reviews, NO to additional writing commitments, NO to conferences (yes, when did you hear me say NO to giving talks or presenting papers at conferences?), NO to anything that could potentially derail me from my objective (which is to finish 3 papers that I have on R&R).


    So if you are receiving a NO from me right now, remember – I still love you, but I have other commitments and it’s time for me to say YES to myself.

    Ironically, in 2018 (my worst year to date) I did not do a Word of The Year exercise. In 2016 it was FOCUS and in 2017, CONQUER.

    Posted in academia.

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