river rocks partly submerged in still water

Revise and resubmit the paper... again??

One morning, in my second year of grad school, I opened my email to find a note from Sidney, a professor I'd worked for a while back:

"Reopening this old thread ... Someone requested the paper ... looking through it again I thought it was a damn good paper. We should definitely resubmit. What do you think?"

What did I think? After rejections from several journals two years prior, and over 30 revisions (I lost count), thinking about that particular unpublished paper made me feel tired. I'd finally given up on it as a lost cause. Its fate was to forever be one of those learning experiences that was probably valuable, but ultimately showed no tangible result and felt like a waste of time.

I tried ignoring the email while I drank a cup of tea and tended to the rest of my inbox. It nagged.

Really? A damn good paper? Maybe revising it again and resubmitting wouldn't be so bad. Sure, every round of reviewers had their own ideas of where any given paper should go and would nitpick different things, but we had already fixed so many minor errors and clarified potential points of confusionā€¦ I liked the idea of having something to show for all my effort on the paper so far. Or was this line of reasoning an instance of the sunk costs fallacy? (That is: I'd put so much work in so far, I should put in more work instead of cutting my losses.)

The First Draft

I had gotten a year-long job as a research intern straight out of college. I'd enjoyed my undergrad research experiences and liked the idea of getting more experience while applying to grad school. So I joined Sidney's lab. I shadowed his grad students, worked on odd bits of many different projects, ran participants through experimental studies, and learned about research at the intersection of psychology and computer science.

One day, Sidney handed me the project that became the damn good paper. He and a colleague had an algorithm and some software that their labs had used to track human body motion in a couple studies. He wanted to verify that the software worked as intended—i.e., that it tracked body motion from video in a way comparable to some other sensors. So, the plan was to collect some clean data with a camera and those other sensors. Compare the output. Run the software on a couple existing datasets that had captured body motion in video and with other sensors. Write it up, cite the paper whenever he used the software in future projects, open source the software so other folks could use it, too.

Sidney was a powerhouse writer. This was my first proper academic paper. He gave me the reins of the project and said he'd check in later.

In retrospect, having supervised a number of undergrad research assistants during my PhD, the project was a classic "give it to the student who wants experience, I don't have time for it, but like the idea of it being finished someday" project. (I have a growing list of theseā€¦) It was a good bet on Sidney's part—I took ownership. I wanted to learn how to put together a good paper.

I collected the data. We talked over an outline, and I started writing. We went back and forth on drafts a dozen times. Sidney picked a journal to submit to and sent me a couple cover letters as examples. When we got reviews back, he explained how they weren't so bad (they looked bad), and gave me some example revision response letters for when I revised the paper and drafted a reply.

But it took a while. The reviewers weren't happy. Ultimately, they rejected it. The next journal was a desk reject. And so on. Eventually, when I left Sidney's lab and started my PhD program at MIT, I left the paper, too.

The Words Aren't Right Yet

Thanks to Twitter, around the time I got Sidney's email asking about resubmission, I found myself reading the blog of science fiction and fantasy author Kameron Hurley. I enjoy her books in large part because of the gruesome realism about life and survival: characters who make it to the end of a book alive are the ones who are winning.

In one post, Kameron Hurley wrote about her experiences as a professional copywriter. She wrote words for other people for a living. She talked about a manager trying to "gently" give her feedback from a client, to which she replied: Don't mince words. Give it to me. If the words are wrong, write them until they are the right words. It was literally her job to make the words right for that client. If they weren't right, they needed revision. She needed the client's hard-hitting feedback.

Her attitude toward writing was inspirational. Her post reminded me that the words on the page aren't me. They're just one attempt at communicating an idea through the imperfect and difficult medium of language. If that communication attempt fails, we are given the opportunity to try again. As Hurley put it, "You write until the words are the right ones."

If we care about communicating our ideas, then the revision process can be a conversation. The goal is to make the writing better. The goal is to improve the presentation of ideas. The goal is to make the words right.

Writing isn't a one-time action. It's not like baking a cake—mix the ingredients, pop it in the oven, and it's done. Writing is a process. Editing is part of that process.

Reviewer feedback, like any other feedback, is aimed at making the writing better—and like any other feedback, it may need to be taken with a grain of salt. There are myriad ways to present ideas. People encounter ideas from where they are at; they may need different amounts of detail or supporting information to understand your words. And that's okay. Learning to judge your audience is a skill that takes practice, too.

Revision and Resubmission

I revised the paper for what felt like the millionth time. This time, though, it wasn't as bad as I had feared. In fact, the two years that had passed had lent me much-needed distance from the paper. As I re-read the reviewer comments from our last rejection, all the comments felt addressable. I could see where the words weren't right.

My co-authors commented and gave feedback. I revised the paper more. We submitted it to a new journal. Major revisions. We resubmitted. Major revisions. We resubmitted. Finally, the words were almost right: Minor revisions. And then it was published.

It's not the paper I'm most proud of, but it is a paper that taught me more than most. When I look at work I have in progress now—like a paper that's now on its 15th+ version, second journal, fifth year of work—I try to remember that academic publishing is often a long process. I try to remember that if the words aren't right yet, then with more time, effort, practice, and feedback, I can get a little closer to making the words right. Even a paper I'd initially given up on could be vanquished.

This article originally appeared on the Resilience in Academic Writing Blog, March 29, 2020


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me wearing a red dress holding tega, a fluffy red and blue robot

Undervaluing hard work in grad school

Wow, you're at MIT? You must be a genius!"

Um. Not sure how to answer that. Look down at my shoes. Nervous laugh.

"Uh, thanks?"

The random passerby who saw my MIT shirt and just had to comment on my presumed brilliance seems satisfied with my response. Perhaps the "awkward genius" trope played in my favor?

See, I'm no genius. And I'll let you in on a little secret: Most of us at MIT aren't inherent geniuses, gliding by on the strength of a vast, extraordinary intellect.

We're not born super smart. Instead, we do things the old-fashioned way: with copious amounts of caffeine, liberally applied elbow grease, and emphatic grunts of effort that would make a Cro-Magnon proud.

The reality on campus is not exactly the effortless, glamorous image the media likes to paint. You know, headlines like:

  • MIT physicists create unbelievable new space dimension!
  • MIT scientists discover that chocolate and coffee cure cancer!
  • MIT engineers fly to the moon in a ship they built out of carbon nanotubes and crystal lattices!
  • Look, it's MIT! Land of the Brilliant, the Inventive, the Brave!

The reality is more like the Land of the Confused, the Obstinate, and the "Let's try it again and see if maybe it works this time so we can get at least one significant result for a paper!"

Yes, I'm exaggerating a little. I have, after all, met a ton of amazing, brilliant people here -- but they're amazing and brilliant because of their effort, curiosity, tenacity, and enthusiasm. Not their inherent genius. None of them are little cartoon figures with cartoon lightbulbs flashing around them like strobe lights as they are struck with amazing idea after amazing idea.

They're people like my labmate, who routinely shows up late to group meetings because he accidentally stays up all night trying to implement some cool machine learning algorithm he found in an obscure-but-possibly-relevant paper (eventually, I'm sure, the effort will pay off!).

They're people like my professors, who set aside entire days each week just for meeting with their students, to hash out ideas and go over paper drafts.

They're people like me, who spend 260% more effort than strictly necessary on making a child-robot interaction flow right, even though the study would probably be fine with subpar dialogue (for the curious: I work on fluffy robots that help kids learn stuff).

The reality is long hours in the library—reading papers, trying to understand what other people have already done and how it relates to my research—and long hours in the lab—trying to put that understanding to use (often learning in the process that I didn't really understand something after all and should probably do more reading).

I think MIT's reputation as being full of inherent geniuses gives many of us the short stick and fails to recognize the sheer amount of hard work and failure that goes into nearly every discovery and invention that's made. Sure, sometimes people get lucky.

There are certainly a few things that someone got right the first time, but let's be honest. The last time my Python code ran on the first try, I went looking for bugs anyway because that never happens (and I was right; hours later, there were still bugs aplenty). Likewise, the last time I got a really interesting experimental result, it was after months of thinking and re-planning, months of programming and testing on the robot, and months of wrangling participants in the lab. All the amazing insights that show up in the final paper draft only come after a lot of analysis, realizing the analysis missed something, rewriting all the R code to do the analysis right, and re-analyzing.

Think of it this way, if a PhD student has signed on to work in a lab for the next indefinite-but-hopefully-only-five-or-maybe-seven years (with a small stipend if they're lucky) and have no idea what magical, impactful dissertation topic will be their ticket out, they're probably already one of those people who likes a challenge. Maybe perseverance is their middle name.

And that's what I think being at MIT is actually about: Learning to fail, struggling to succeed, and knowing the value in the struggle.

Of the real "geniuses" I know, they're people who just want to know what's going on and are okay with doing a lot of hard work to find out.

They're people who keep asking "and then what? and then what?" after they learn something, and spend months or years chasing down answers. For example: "So I find that 5-year-olds mirror the robot's phrases when playing storytelling games with it, and learn more when they do—Why? What does this say about rapport and peer learning? What modulates this effect? What are the implications for educational technology more generally?"

They're people who dive wholeheartedly into each rabbit hole to see how far it goes and what useful tidbits of scientific knowledge can be gleaned along the way.

They're people who keep probing. Sometimes, that leads to dramatic headlines. More often, it doesn't.

This article originally appeared on the MIT Graduate Student Blog, February 2018


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Me on the strip at a fencing competition.

Me, fencing in a competition at Vassar College in 2010.

Fencing: More than parries and ripostes.

I used a fence a lot. For ten years, I picked up a foil and went on guard on the strip two, three, sometimes five days a week. Or more, with tournaments on weekends. I was not alone: my teammates did the same. Yet despite the dedication so many of us gave to the sport, the first coach I had, George Platt, used to say that when it came to life versus fencing, "It's just fencing!"

However important the sport is, in the end, "it's just fencing!"

It's as important as you make it to you. The rest of your life, well, that matters too.

I was thinking about this recently in relation to other life decisions, balancing time and energy. And I realized: I really did learn a lot, being a fencer.

Priorities, commitment, and time management

I learned how to make something a priority. How to commit to something.

I was never late to practice, and only missed a day if I was coughing and running a fever. I gave up other clubs, movie nights, Halloween parties, and much more because I had practice, or I had to sleep, we were leaving at 4am for a competition tomorrow.

But remember, it's just fencing.

My coaches in college always stressed that academics came first. If you had a huge test that day, or if you had to a class that happen to clash with practice times, well, there was no help for it; academics came first.

But being busy was no excuse to skip practice. After all, we were all college students; we all had homework and tests and classes. By joining the fencing team, I was saying, this is a priority for me. I'm going to put time and energy into this. Joining the team meant that other things that could have been priorities -- other clubs, social events -- were not so high on my personal list. Fencing was. So I made time for it.

Sometime later, I was working on a academic project. My professor told me, "It's your project; if it matters to you, it can happen, it can be good. But it's your project. If you don't care about it, if you don't make it happen, well, it won't happen. And since it's your project, no one else will care."

Fencing was like that. If you didn't care how many bouts you won, if you didn't care how well you fenced, well, guess what, no one else would really care, either. Your teammates or your coach might be disappointed. But you're the one most invested in what you're doing.

Waiting by the strip for a bout to start

Waiting for a bout to start at the Denver North America Cup event in 2005.

Related to that: When I was fifteen or so, I was fencing in a local competition, a direct elimination bout against a woman of about the same skill level as me. We kept tying the score: 4-5, 10-9. The last round, I won. My dad said it was because I cared. It was partly endurance, too. But if you want to win, you'll put in more effort and go farther. You have to enjoy it. You have to be a good athlete. And you have to be competitive. I remember George saying once that if you don't care when you lose -- if you aren't upset that you lost -- then you didn't care about winning, either.

Failure, adaptation, and emotion regulation

When you fence, you make a lot of mistakes. You get hit, over and over, in the same way, by the same opponent, because you keep making the same mistake. It's frustrating. You lose a bout 0-5 because you kept making the same stupid mistake. Sometimes to a girl you used to beat 5-0. And the thing about fencing is that it's such an individual sport. If you lose, it's all on you. Sure, sometimes the referee makes bad calls. Sometimes the other girl just is a better fencer than you. But not always.

There are two parts to dealing with this. First, the practical side: You lost this touch. Or you lost this bout. What did you do and why didn't it work? Critically evaluate your actions. See the mistakes, or the places where someone out-fenced you. Try to improve. Adapt.

Me lunging on the strip, foil bent as I hit my opponent.

Me, fencing at a Bay Cup event in 2004.

George always taught that if what you're doing isn't working, do something else. Change something. Change anything. Sometimes, if you find yourself doing the same wrong thing over and over, it doesn't matter what else, so long as it's different: a different parry or attack, different timing or distance. Don't get stuck. Don't let your opponent score the same way twice. If what you're doing isn't working, change what you are doing.

The second part is emotional and mental. In a pool round in a tournament, you only have 5 or 6 bouts. You just lost one 0-5. You can't let that negatively affect the next bout. You have to move past it. Re-focus. You can't be flustered and upset when you step back on the strip.

I learned to consciously regulate my emotions and mental state, using combinations of music on my ipod, self-talk, and habits before and during competitions to reinforce states and moods that I empirically found to lead to me fencing better. You can't lose your cool. For me, I fenced best when balanced: Not too excited. Not too calm. Not too upset. Focused. Edged. Finding that state, keeping it, and regaining it was as critical to my performance as good hydration.

Practice and preparation

George also used to say that it was the practice you did six months ago that matters most in your competition today. And day of, I had my routines. You warm up before a competition. That isn't just to prepare your muscles - it was also part of getting ready mentally. Getting your mind in the right space. It was about eating well, and sleeping well -- not sacrificing an upcoming tournament to one evening off. If that meant missing parties, other events, whatever -- well, preparation was key. That was what commitment was. Sleeping was part of that. Eating, hydrating, training.

When taking a ballroom dance class two years ago, I realized I'd learned something else from all that practice: How to practice. You learn it slow, practice it perfectly, under control, slowly, until eventually, at top speed during a bout, you do okay. You can't practice sloppy and expect that when it matters you'll be any less sloppy. Practice perfect.

A group of fencers in white gear standing around.

A group of fencers at George Platt's Swordplay Fencing club in 2006.

Lessons learned

My senior year at Vassar, there was controversy over whether varsity sports should count for academic credit. Suffice to say, one piece of the argument was that yes, you learn a lot doing a sport. If credits equate to learning, you learn as much -- if not more! -- in a sport as you do in other classes. You may learn different things. But you do learn.

(As a side note, the divisions between disciplines, quantifying or categorizing learning, and deciding what "counts" as an academic class don't always make sense to me.)

I learned to prioritize. To commit. To fail. To persevere. To adapt. To prepare.

I learned about the difference between achieving success and achieving excellence. I learned about confidence.

Ten years of competitive fencing. Wonderful coaches, great teammates, and a lot of things learned. Time well spent, I'd say.


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Northeast Conference Champions

That's right: For the first time in program history, the VC Women's Fencing team has triumphed over the other schools in our conference!

I just wanted to give us a shoutout. We've been having a great season, going 30-6 so far -- certainly the best in my time at Vassar, both personally and as a team. This was a good year for it, too. I'm going to miss the team when I graduate.

Take a look at the official Vassar Athletics story!


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