How to write a power-point discussion (economics-specific)

The goal of a good discussion is to explain to the audience where the paper fits into the general social science/policy framework and to help the paper improve for the future.  The goal is not to destroy a paper but to improve it (see exception below).  Discussants are serving science!

  1. Frame question— why is it important?  (You can mention your own work here if applicable.)
  2. Briefly summarize paper.  If the presenter is great, you will be able to skip the summary or only go over what you see as the most important parts.  If the presenter is terrible, your audience will really appreciate figuring out what they just heard, so it’s good to be thorough on your slides if you don’t know a priori how good the presenter will be.  If applicable, here would be a great place to take the author’s work through a “sniff test”– Bridgette Madrian is one of the best discussants I’ve seen, and one of my favorite discussions of hers was where she took a person’s paper (on whether or not we need 70% of our income after retirement) and applied it to her own life with a spreadsheet and came to the conclusion that the paper’s thesis was plausible.  Sometimes discussants will call up experts in the industry to ask their qualitative opinion.  Really great discussants will sometimes replicate or extend with another dataset.  None of these things are necessary, but if they’re easy for you or an RA to do, they can really push you to be memorable (though being invited to discuss more papers is not necessarily something you want to do!).
  3. Constructively point out problems with the paper and suggest solutions (if any).  Don’t be a dick.  Frame these as questions to think about, how big a problem you think they are etc . Don’t use this part as a place to talk about why your work is awesome and theirs sucks.  If you do mention your work in this spot, use it only as a place to commiserate with standard problems and suggest solutions that could work for them.
  4. Extensions for the future, broader impact.  Here’s a place where you can talk up your own work if it is related and can speak to the paper you’re discussing.

How many slides do you want?  Fewer than the number of minutes you have to present.  It is better to go short than to go long.

Special cases:

  1.  The authors haven’t actually done anything yet:  Spent the majority of your time on why this is an interesting question and suggestions for future work.  (Also ok to use a chunk of your time talking about your own related work.)  Use the word “preliminary” a lot.
  2. The authors clearly haven’t addressed causality but causality needs to be addressed (or any other major elephant in the paper issue):  Spent the majority of your time on why this is an interesting question.  Talk about the problems of getting to causality and (if easy for you to do) what other authors have done and (if easy for you to do) the problems with what they’ve done (or if not problematic, then suggest these authors follow).  Gently mention that causality is something that these authors need to think about.  The audience will understand.  Then suggest future work (which will include really nailing down causality).
  3. You don’t get the paper to discuss until the night before at 3am:  Feel free to spend the entire time talking about your own work, or to come up with something off the cuff while they’re giving the presentation (it is AOK to note that you did not get the paper until the night before, but that should be the extent of your dickishness).
  4. The paper is poorly done and the results, if taken at face value, will do real harm to people, particularly those from marginalized groups:  In this case, it is ok to firmly and politely destroy the paper for shoddy craftsmanship.  You can do so in a professional manner in steps 2 and 3. You’re still not being a dick, but you don’t have to frame things as questions to think about but as real methodological problems.   It’s ok to throw around the terms “dangerous” and “needs stronger proof”.  It’s a shame that there are still guys (and the occasional woman) who write papers with sexist/racist agendas who ignore basic science in order to prove that wealthy white men are superior and deserve their privilege, but there are.  They shouldn’t be allowed to do bad science.

Academic readers– is this about right?  What things are the same or different in your discipline?  Any other tips?

How to do a powerpoint presentation (social sciences, economics)

I LOVE me some powerpoints.

Think about what you want your audience to take away.  Use the rule of 3 to emphasize those points (say what you’re going to say, say it, then tell people that you said it).  Depending on how much time you have you won’t be able to get through every point in the paper, so think about what subset you want to present, what slides you want to keep in case of questions but not actually present, and so on.

Use the powerpoint as a guide to remind you what to talk about, so brief bullets/phrases instead of full sentences.  Do not read off the slides.

Some people will only want to read your slides, some people will only want to listen to what you say.  Make sure that people who do one or the other will still get the gist of your presentation.

Make sure your fontsize is big enough that the people in the back can see it if they’re wearing glasses.   My heuristic is to not go below 28 point Calibri if it’s something I want them to read.  (Table notes can go smaller)

Graphs are often more compelling than regression output.  (But keep the regression output as a backup)

Don’t use fancy wipes/fade-outs/etc.  Anything that distracts without a purpose is useless.

Development economists, behavioral economists, psychologists, antrhopologists, etc. use a lot of photos/pictures/drawings and occasionally movies.  Do that if it is common in your field.  If it isn’t, then only sex it up like that if it helps improve understanding.

DO NOT USE PREZI.  Or if you do, use it like you would Powerpoint or Beemer.  You do not want to give members of your audience migraines.

I have often found it helpful to have different versions of the same information in the powerpoint that I can skip over depending on how pressed for time I am.  So I will have a pretty chart, regression output, and summary bullets (or two out of the three) and I will use combinations of one or two of these depending on how much time I have left.  It is also helpful to know which sections can be skipped without losing the main themes of the presentation.

Practice your talk.  Know how the talk is going to differ if questions are allowed vs. no questions being allowed.

It is better to go a little under than a little over.  It is better to skip parts than to talk so quickly nobody can understand you.

Join us next Tuesday for:  How to write a powerpoint discussion(!)

Academic readers– is this about right?  What things are the same or different in your discipline?  Any other tips?

Your Ideal Work Day

A few years ago, get a life phd asked readers to think about what their ideal day would look like.

My ideal work day definitely does NOT include teaching or ANY emails from students.  It does, however, include research and friends.

I was at this conference when I realized I was having my ideal work day.  No students.  No student emails.  I talked to colleagues about research:  theirs, mine.  I got inspired to learn about a new statistical technique.

I saw good friends I hadn’t seen in a long time.  I ate good food.  I had time for a nap in the middle.

I met a new research collaborator and we talked about what research we do and could share.
I could choose what was most interesting to go hear talks about.  Setting my own schedule is awesome.
That is an ideal work day.


I think mine would start off with me checking my email to find a desk accept.  :)  Or an R&R from a top 2 journal.  Follow it up with a request to do something relatively trivial using my expertise for a large sum of money (like reading a proposal or giving a discussion).

These ideal day exercises aren’t so useful to me because my fantasy scenarios mainly depend on things that are outside of my control (last week was not an ideal week– the summer started with two conference rejections and a journal rejection, also our unscoopable paper that coauthor sat on for two years got scooped), and because I’m pretty happy with my life as it is and trying to optimize instead of satisfice just makes me grumpy.  It may not be a perfect life, but spending time and mental energy trying to make it better tends to make it worse and take time and energy away from things that actually help my life improve.  I remember the morning that I first heard about the willpower research on only being able to make a limited number of decisions each day, I was completely useless because I’d second guess making any decision instead of just making it, thus adding to my mental load.

Now, if I were miserable or unhappy, then the amount of time thinking about what makes me happy would be totally worth it.  A little bit of introspection might be able to make big short-term changes.  Fortunately for me, that’s not where I am right now (rejections aside).  We will see what the future brings.

What’s your ideal work day?

Ask the grumpies: First year on the tt

SP asks:

Any advice for my husband, who is starting his first TT job in January? He’s in a science field, if that matters. He’s read this article: How I learned to stop worrying and love the tenure-track faculty life if you have any opinion on it.

One area his struggles is with time management and deadlines. He meets his deadlines, but often will work on new research until he absolutely has to start preparing a paper, then is working until the very last minute. “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute!” He’s done fine in grad school and post-doc, but he is worried that his style won’t translate well to balancing teaching and advising with research.

My first advice is for your husband to ask for advice himself.  :-)  Specifically, he should ask his mentors and senior colleagues (respectfully) for advice when he gets on campus.

He’s right to be worried!  You can do everything last-minute on the TT, but it will destroy your health and your family life, and could be less-than-great for tenure.  One book he could read is On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching by James Lang.  This would be especially helpful if he hasn’t combined teaching and research before.

#2 points out that the excellent Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice is pretty convincing on the not binging and crashing research or teaching and also has great tips.  She has definitely found that starting early and doing a bit at the time really helps her subconscious to figure out tricky problems for her seemingly in her sleep, resulting in her spending less time on teaching and writing overall with higher quality results than when she last-minutes things.

It’s kind of ok to prep your teaching at the last minute, but there will be less sleep and probably more stress than necessary.  Doing a last-minute class prep is less likely to be successful when you have very little experience doing it and at figuring out how long it takes you, personally, to prep one class period from scratch.  Some of this may be inevitable in the first year, but after that it should be more measured.

#2 liked to spend her Sundays doing lecture prep that first year.  She also did a bunch of up-front prep work before school started getting the bones of the class down.  After each lecture she either changed her notes right then or she left herself post-it notes for what to change or keep– this helped her amazingly the next time she taught the course.

I wonder if his papers have been successful in getting published if he always does them at the last minute?  I would be concerned that they will get rejected rather than R&R because they are likely sloppy and do not show revisions or clear explanations, do not anticipate reviewer objections, etc.  Perhaps setting up a writing accountability program or group would help him be more productive in the long run  (click on our writing tag to see what we think about this).  Meeting deadlines is good, but having enough time to ask for feedback before the deadline may be more successful.

#2 notes that one of Boice’s big things is to “let others do the work for you”– that’s something you can’t do if you leave things to the last minute.  A grant is going to be more successful if someone proofreads it.  Reviewers will like your papers better if they make sense and are error-free.  He can always set himself earlier deadlines that will allow him to put down the completed paper or proposal while someone else looks at it so he can polish it at the last minute.

New research is shiny, I admit, and way more fun than revising the intro to the paper you just wrote about your previous results!  What’s his R&R success rate?  His grant funding rate?  Sometimes last-minute grant-writing will work, but it puts a big strain on the support staff and you might not be able to get it through the relevant campus offices as fast as you think.  At the very least, last-minute grant work will burn goodwill in the sponsored programs office on your campus, and you might need that later.  Again, it totally does happen sometimes, but if EVERY grant is last-second hair-on-fire sign-this-form-today, you may start to encounter resistance.

#2 notes that many faculty put grants off to the last minute.  If you get a reputation for *not* doing that, they will often love you and be more willing to go the extra mile for you.  I speak from experience.


So much to do! A busy summer ahead

OMG, I am so overextended this summer, but if I can pull it off, it will be AWESOME.

What happened, in case you’re wondering, is that I submitted a bunch of short-term grants and got three of them.  On top of that, there’s regular submitted papers coming back from journals and so on.

So I have 4 big projects that need major work for the summer.  Mentally I’m only capable of keeping track of two or three, so this is going to need extra organization.

I have:

1.  The R&R paper that is getting split into 2 papers (a small one for the journal I sent it to, and a regular-sized one for the journal I’m sending the main paper to).

2.  Restricted data project for which only I am allowed to touch the data.  I was supposed to have access to these data last summer but SNAFU FUBAR @##@.  But I have it now, and am going to need to get a no-cost extension to keep it.

3.  Pilot study needs to get done for grant proposal for big grant.  Coauthor moved slowly so we’re behind schedule.   Lab manager graduated.  New lab members.  Do not want to talk about the weeks of administrative SNAFUs.

4.  Stupid NSF thing I got added to for the $.

[update]:  #5.  Mildly crappy paper that I sent into a conference got accepted unexpectedly.  I guess I passed the threshold from being accepted too infrequently to being accepted too frequently, at least in some venues.  No more crappy submissions to this conference in the future!  It’s going to be hard getting an hour and 15 min talk out of the material.

I have a small army of RAs of varying quality to manage, including one guy who just got a low C on the final for his methods class.  Damn it.  He did well on the midterm, but ugh.  Fortunately he won’t be working the entire summer.

So, that’s my story.  I’m doing Dame Eleanor‘s thingy for #1, and I’ve got RAs to keep me going for 3 and 4 and a coauthor whose sabbatical is ending for #2.  Who needs sleep or weekends?

Boice for kids!

Ok, not really.  By “kids” I mean 24-year-olds.

(If you are my student, why are you Googling this?  Stop it and go back to work on your paper!) (Also, please don’t tell anybody my secret identity.  Thanks.)

Everyone else is doing writing these days!  Once more I attempt to incorporate writing into my content course for juniors and seniors in the major.  For them I am summarizing a lot of work by Robert Boice, author of the amazingly useful Professors As Writers. But, most of the stuff here in this post comes from his other book, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency (1994).  I just couldn’t find a link to the other one, it’s hard to get ahold of.  It’s worth it, though, because it has more details than Professors as Writers, and it has particularly useful bits (almost half the book!) about how to get motivation and ideas, and how to answer your own objections to implementing a writing schedule.  Some of this stuff is new to both #1 and #2 so I’m plopping my notes here, just in case anyone else wants to know. [Editorial comments in brackets.]

These are really my own notes, so most are not in comprehensible sentence-form, sorry.  Also, remember not to plagiarize.  Personally, we find Boice inspiring, and we hope you do too.  (Although if you are a student for whom this looks very familiar, note that this post may have totally been plagiarized from your own professor… you just can’t tell on the internet.  Or it could be great minds thinking alike.)

First, an example of my own freewriting when stuck [I show this to students after they have already taken a version of Boice’s blocking questionnaire, and have tried freewriting at least once themselves.]

Getting over some problems:
(Boice, 2000)

Before you are ready
– Informal outlines
– Talk aloud, freewrite
Keep going: contingencies
– Go back to freewriting if necessary
Finish: revisions (not today) [I don’t talk about revision until later, because I don’t want to distract the students from producing a first draft]

Starting before you are ready is hard for impatient people but will help them avoid doing it all at once.  It will help procrastinators and challenge perfectionists.  Informal outlines or talking will help perfectionists.

How To Get Motivation:

Boice (1994, p. 22) summarizing Murray:
1.  “[B]ecome an avid collector of details, facts, thoughts, anything including references.”
2.  “With immersion in a subject, the next step, wanting to order & organize the information, comes naturally.”
3.  “…realization emerges that much of what has been collected & clarified is unknown to others…”
4.  “Finally, after rehearsing the material in their minds, writers impose a plan & a schedule….”

A pep-talk:

“Motivation and inspiration follow, not precede, the practice of regular, accumulated work…”  (Boice, 1994, p. 19)
Writing can be conceptualized as problem-solving task.  To solve a problem, you have to try stuff.
The anticipation of pain is often worse than actually experiencing it.
BRIEF DAILY SESSIONS (not huge blocks)

Getting Ideas

Where do you get your ideas?
“There’s a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send ’em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”   –Harlan Ellison [#2 likes saying Schenectady]

Boice book 1994, pp. 54 – 57: steps to get ideas from taking notes (presented here in much-reduced and adapted form)
(This also leads very naturally to a useful outline that won’t feel too rigid.)

If you know experts in the field, ask them where to start.

1.  As you read, ask how it can help your writing. How do your thoughts fit in with the conversation?
2.  Take notes.
3.  Go back through notes and write comments to yourself.  Have a conversation with yourself and author.  Agree, disagree, expand, argue.
4.  Set limits.  (E.g., <20 minutes per article, ≤1 page of notes per article)
5.  Carry your notes with you.  Pull them out when you have 10 minutes.  Continue conversation.
6.  Organize sources in different ways.  Arrange by topic, methodology, etc.
7.  Turn all notes into 1 page that integrates them.  Agree/disagree, tell a story, note gaps. Congratulations, you made an outline!
8.  Start turning notes into prose.  Don’t try to read every article ever.  Start writing before you feel ready.
— It can be informal.  “And then I will say the part about how XYZ…”
— explain it to someone or talk out loud

Now your outline won’t feel too stiff and you won’t ignore it or hate it.  This will actually make the writing of the paper go faster and easier, really!

*** Outline is a PROCESS, not a THING, and it needs to take place in brief daily sessions.  ***

Stimulus Control: Environment

Teach yourself that THIS LOCATION is for WORK ONLY [#2 really needs to work on this]
Minimize distraction: quiet, headphones
No interruptions: turn off phone, twitter, email pop-ups, close the door
Arrange objects for comfort & convenience
Office supplies
Don’t get lost in environmental tweaking
Use social control

Stimulus Control: Habits

Write every day (but don’t shut out family, sleep, exercise, etc.)
No time?  Do a time audit
Write when your brain is fresh
(Pre-) Write in small, frequent amounts
— Warmup time for each session increases with time since leaving project
Plan for next session at end
Keep a chart: time in, time out, work finished
Making work visible; accountability

Structures Do Not  Impede Creativity

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
–W. Wordsworth

The muse works for you!

Contingency strength is important: get you to write, but not to hate it
Binge writing results in fewer total pages over time, and more misery
Social contingencies: appointments

Once again, these are my own notes, summarized from other authors and a variety of sources. Please don’t copy them.  I also show my students part of this video by Anne Lamott, whose book Bird by Bird I deeply love:

Freelancing: Thoughts on Scalzi’s “You’re not fooling anyone

when you take your laptop into the coffeeshop.”

Now available for Kindle!  Or, you know, by clicking the “writing” tag on his blog.  Something like that.  Basically it’s a collection of his posts on writing up to 2006.  An entertaining read of short essays that are also blog posts.

What I got out of reading this book is that I could totally become a free-lance writer.  I have the skill-set.  I could go through the build-up process.  I can handle frequent rejection (after all, I am an academic).  I have no problem with thinking my writing is precious and uneditable.  I even have a few contacts I could tap.

But… I really don’t want to.  I just don’t think the amount of effort is worthwhile for me right now.  I just like my current job more.

I do do some free-lance writing, but only when it falls into my lap and is related to my research area.  Right now my time is too precious to seek out additional opportunities or to build up my portfolio for less than what I make now with my infrequent policy briefs and news articles and etc.  (Though, I did have to chuckle when Scalzi said that the NYTimes gets away with having people like me write for them for free in exchange for the prestige… because the NYTimes has done exactly that with me!  On an incredibly short deadline too.  Laura Vanderkam would not be impressed.  But hey, my department liked me having the byline.)

And I could be more like Betsy Stevenson (who is one of my personal heroes) and be a public academic for my area of research expertise, but I fear that would require having twitter and there’s other stuff I’d rather do with my time.

So I dunno, maybe if I go through a career crisis and we move to the SF bay area… but not any time soon.

p.s.  We were an editor’s pick in this week’s carnival of personal finance!

Have you ever thought about doing a second job but decided it wasn’t worth the time and effort?


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